Texas Firefighter’s Termination Upheld

A lawsuit filed by a Hunstville firefighter who was terminated in 2019, has been dismissed. Jason January claimed his termination was on account of his disability, his age, and in retaliation for his filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Following gall bladder surgery in 2015, January suffered from gastrointestinal problems that required narcotic medications that rendered him unable to work. The fire department accommodated his disability, allowing him to leave work early or call in sick when flareups occurred. However, in 2016 he was accused of attempting to obtain narcotics from another firefighter.

As explained by the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas:

  • In 2016, January was placed on a year probation when an investigation revealed that he had solicited prescription medication from another firefighter.
  • In December 2017, January submitted a letter of resignation because he planned to take a position with another city.
  • January later changed his mind and attempted to rescind his resignation.
  • Although the City of Huntsville permitted January to rescind his resignation, the City did not promote him to officer positions that came open in 2018.
  • January had served as a training officer and that position was revoked.
  • January met with City Manager Aron Kulhavy and Human Resources Coordinator Marla Diers in November 2018 to notify them that he thought these actions were discriminatory.
  • In March 2019, January went to City Hall to make copies of paperwork to file a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge.
  • City employees working at City Hall that day reported that January appeared to be under the influence of some intoxicant and looked and sounded and “groggy.”
  • Then City Secretary, Brenda Poe, reported that January intimidated her and blocked her exit from the copy room.
  • The City investigated the reports of January’s behavior and fired him in April 2019.

January sued alleging violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and retaliation. He claims his behavior at city hall was due to low blood sugar, not narcotics. The city moved to dismiss the suit. Chief Judge Lee H. Rosenthal granted the city’s motion to dismiss explaining as follows:

  • January performed his job as a firefighter from the time of his surgery to the time he was terminated.
  • He was not terminated due to his performance on the job, but rather because of the incident at City Hall.
  • January has pointed to no evidence, direct or circumstantial, that Police Chief Lunsford [who made the decision to termination January’s employment] took January’s disability into account in terminating his employment on April 12, 2019.
  • January had taken time off due to flare ups since 2015, without any adverse consequence apparent in the record.
  • There is no causal link between January’s disability and his firing on April 12, 2019.
  • January argues disability discrimination is evident because although he was fired on March 28, 2019, for inappropriate and intoxicated behavior, it did not arise from drugs but from a blood sugar issue.
  • There is no evidence that when Chief Lunsford decided to terminate January on April 12, 2019, that he knew that January was experiencing low blood sugar on the day of the incident.
  • Chief Lunsford did know that January behaved inappropriately with other City employees.
  • The City documented several legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for January’s termination on April 12, 2019.
  • January has failed to make a prima facie case showing disability discrimination or a failure to accommodate under the federal discrimination laws.
  • His disability discrimination claims may not proceed.
  • January’s retaliation claim fails. He has failed to show the causal link necessary for a prima facie case, and he has failed to show that Chief Lunsford’s decision to fire him was a pretext for a retaliatory or discriminatory motive.
  • January’s retaliation claim is dismissed.
  • The City’s motion for summary judgment, is granted. Final judgment is entered separately.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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