Texas Firefighter Claims Termination Was Retaliation for Participating in Sexual Harassment Investigation into Fire Chief

A firefighter in Texas who was demoted and fired after he complained about sexually harassing behavior by his fire chief, has filed suit claiming retaliation. Ryan Horton filed suit today naming the Klein Volunteer Fire Department and Harris County Emergency Service District # 16 as defendants.

Horton claims he witnessed sexually harassing behavior by the former fire chief, who has since resigned. In addition, a female HR employee complained to him about the chief’s behavior. In December, 2021, the fire chief discovered a handwritten note on his desk, and questioned Horton about it. The following day a deputy chief expressed his concern about the note, allegedly in an “unprofessional and threatening manner.” Two days later Horton was placed on administrative leave from his position as training chief without a clear explanation.

On December 14, 2021, Horton informed the department he was seeking assistance from the EEOC, and on December 16, 2021 he and two other employees participated in an investigation into the fire chief’s sexually harassing behavior. On December 20, 2021 Horton was taken off administrative leave, but on December 24, 2021 – Christmas Eve, he was demoted to firefighter.

The fire chief resigned in early January, 2021. On February 7, 2022, Horton was accused of violating the department’s harassment policy. The allegation turned out to have involved “public urination on a Black Lives Matter flag while on a KVFD business trip to Appleton, Wisconsin.” The department claimed to have a photo of the incident. Coincidentally, it was during that same trip that Horton observed the chief engaged in sexually harassing behavior with the female HR employee while on a video call.

Horton was terminated on May 24, 2022. The suit alleges two counts, Retaliation for Participation in Protected Activity under 42 U.S.C. §2000e et seq., and Retaliatory Hostile Work Environment under 42 U.S.C. §2000e et seq. He seeks back pay, front pay, damages for emotional distress, injunctive relief and attorneys fees. 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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