Illinois Chief Challenges Termination As Violating ADA and FMLA

An Illinois fire chief who was terminated in 2021 has filed suit claiming the fire district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act. John R. Nixon served as fire chief for the Fox River and Countryside Fire Rescue District (FRCFRD) from 2016 til his dismissal on August 23, 2021.

Chief Nixon was under a three-year employment agreement that expired on April 30, 2023. He had suffered from several medical conditions that caused him to lose time from work, including a vehicle accident precipitated by his passing out (April, 2019), a diagnosis of T Cell Large Granular Lymphocyte Leukemia (April, 2019); pneumonia compounded by the leukemia (May, 2019); and COVID19 (November, 2020). On each occasion an interim acting chief was appointed while Chief Nixon recuperated. The chief would regularly consult with the interim acting chief to address matters that arose.

However, things began to change in May, 2021. According to the complaint:

  • On May 17, 2021, Trustee LeBlanc was sworn in as the new FRCFR Board President. On that same night, Trustees McManus and Parthun were also sworn in as FRCFR Board Trustees.
  • On Saturday August 14, 2021, while at his home, Plaintiff began experiencing severe leg pain and had a high fever. Plaintiff went to the hospital for observation and was admitted for further testing.
  • On Sunday August 15, 2021, Plaintiff contacted his Administrative Assistant, Tracy Dunklau to inform her that he would not be in the office on Monday due to his hospitalization.
  • On Monday August 16, 2021, Plaintiff contacted Assistant Fire Chief Bert Lancaster to inform him of his absence and to discuss FRCFR business that needed to be presented at the regularly scheduled Board meeting that was to proceed later that same day.
  • On the morning of Tuesday August 17, 2021, while Plaintiff was still in the hospital, Plaintiff received a text message from Trustee LeBlanc asking to deliver “a time sensitive document” to him.
  • At some time after receiving the text message from Trustee LeBlanc, Plaintiff received a letter from FRCFR informing Plaintiff that he was being temporarily relieved of all Fire Chief duties and was placed on paid medical leave in order for Plaintiff “to focus on [his] health.” The letter went on to state that Assistant Chief Lancaster would remain the acting Fire Chief. Plaintiff was then locked out of his district email and had no access to FRCFR department files.
  • Later in the day on August 17, 2021, Plaintiff was discharged from the hospital. Plaintiff called Trustee LeBlanc to discuss the involuntary medical leave and inform Trustee LeBlanc that he was going to visit his primary care physician on August 18, 2021 and was expecting to receive the all-clear to return to work without any restrictions. During that same conversation, Plaintiff expressed his desire to return to work after that appointment and Trustee LeBlanc told Plaintiff that he could not return to work. Plaintiff then asked for a special meeting to discuss with the Board of Trustees why he was not being allowed to use his regular sick pay instead of being placed on medical leave.
  • On August 18, 2021, Plaintiff visited his primary care physician and received a return-to-work letter.
  • On that same day, Plaintiff received a text message from Trustee LeBlanc informing him that he could meet her at the FRCFR station number 1 at 1:00pm on Monday August 23, 2021.
  • On August 23, 2021 around 1pm, Plaintiff met with Trustee LeBlanc and Trustee Parthun along with FRCFR legal counsel Ken Shepro for a recorded meeting to discuss Plaintiff’s medical leave. During that meeting Plaintiff presented his return-to-work letter from his primary care physician and requested he be reinstated as the Fire Chief the next day. Plaintiff’s request was denied, and he was told that a special meeting of the Board was scheduled for the evening of August 23, 2021 to discuss Plaintiff’s medical leave.
  • On August 23, 2021 around 6:50pm, Plaintiff received a telephone call on his cellphone from Trustee LeBlanc and when he answered Trustee LeBlanc informed Plaintiff that she was present with four of the Trustees in executive session. The Trustees present for the executive session included Trustees LeBlanc, Karr, Parthun and McManus. Trustee LeBlanc informed Plaintiff that the Board had voted to terminate Plaintiff as the FRCFR Fire Chief. During that same telephone call, Plaintiff was offered the opportunity to resign in order to “save his reputation.” Plaintiff informed that Board that he would not resign. Plaintiff was then terminated by FRCFR without explanation.

The lawsuit filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois alleges the fire district violated the ADA by not providing Chief Nixon with a reasonable accommodation for his disability and for terminating him on account of his disability. It alleges the district violated the FMLA by denying Chief Nixon his right to take FMLA sick leave. Finally, the suit alleges a violation of his 14th Amendment due process rights.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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