The termination of a Wyoming fire captain who reprimanded a wheel-chair bound “high demand” citizen following several EMS lift-assist calls, has been upheld by the Wyoming Supreme Court. Captain Stephanie Schofield was terminated from the Rawlins Fire Department in 2020.
The facts are important, and explained by the Wyoming Supreme Court as follows:
- In the early morning hours of May 16, 2020, 911 dispatcher Karigan Gates received a call from citizen DM seeking a “lift assist.”
- Ms. Gates was familiar with DM as she had spoken with her more than fifty times in her capacity as a dispatcher.
- DM is in a wheelchair and occasionally has difficulty speaking but given time, can communicate. On receiving DM’s call, Ms. Gates called Fire Station One to initiate a response to DM’s request.
- Ms. Schofield, who was nearing the end of a twenty-four-hour shift and had been asleep for several hours, took the call.
- After Ms. Gates relayed the information, Ms. Schofield replied, “F***in [DM], G*d d*mn it.”
- Ms. Schofield and Fire Engineer Paul Hardy then drove to DM’s home.
- There, they discovered that the control stick of DM’s wheelchair had gotten stuck underneath her kitchen countertop. After freeing her, they returned to the station.
- Three days later, on May 19, 2020, Ms. Gates received another late night 911 call from DM asking for a lift assist.
- Ms. Gates called Fire Station One and Ms. Schofield, asleep at the end of her shift, answered the call.
- On learning that the call for assistance was from DM, Ms. Schofield said, “f***in [DM].”
- “I’m going to kick her a**.”
- Ms. Gates, feeling uncomfortable but not believing Ms. Schofield was intending to act on her comments, laughed.
- When Ms. Schofield and Fire Engineer Hardy arrived at DM’s residence, they found her in her wheelchair in the bedroom.
- The impetus for her 911 call was that her catheter had disconnected.
- After reconnecting the catheter and returning to the station, Ms. Schofield called Ms. Gates.
- She explained the reason behind DM’s call and told Ms. Gates that she scolded DM.
- Ms. Schofield disclosed that she told DM, “this isn’t what we do. . . . You need to call your parents . . . .” “[W]e’re coming here thinking that this is an emergency.” “This isn’t an emergency.” “You can’t [tell us] lift assist when it’s not [an emergency].”
- Ms. Schofield told Ms. Gates that she thought she had made DM “feel bad” and “she may complain.”
- Fire Engineer Hardy testified he was “surprised” because “[he] didn’t think [Ms.] Schofield would have talked to citizen DM that way.”
The phone calls between Gates and Captain Schofield were discovered by a supervisor, who formally reported the matter leading to Captain Schofield’s initial dismissal on May 27, 2020. However, that proceeding failed to meet the minimum requirements for due process (ie. she was called in an offered the opportunity to resign or be fired). She retained counsel who immediately pointed out the city failed to comply with its own civil service rules and deprived her of a meaningful pre-termination (Loudermill) hearing. As a result, she was reinstated as the city sought a “do-over” of her termination.
On November 23, 2020 following a formal civil service hearing, Captain Schofield was again terminated. She appealed the decision to district court alleging that her due process rights had been violated. The district court agreed and ordered her reinstated, prompting the city to file an appeal.
The Wyoming Supreme Court explained it’s decision to uphold the termination determination as follows:
- Ms. Schofield maintains the district court correctly ruled that she was not afforded pretermination due process prior to the contested case hearing because her de facto date of discharge was either on May 27 or, at the latest, June 8, 2020.
- The City asserts the district court erred because Ms. Schofield’s erroneous termination was rescinded prior to the contested case hearing, and therefore, the contested case hearing satisfied Ms. Schofield’s pretermination due process rights.
- In Wyoming, “to have ‘good cause’ to terminate employment, the employer’s decision must be ‘supported by substantial evidence gathered through an adequate investigation that includes notice of the claimed misconduct and a chance for the employee to respond.'”
- Ms. Schofield maintains that the initial mistakes… cannot be undone.
- She argues that the contested case hearing cannot substitute for an informal hearing with her supervisors where the Rules of Evidence do not apply.
- She maintains that “a full and fair” “opportunity to be heard” required an opportunity for her to offer any and all evidence in her defense to Mr. Ziebold prior to other pretermination procedures.
- She claims, because the hearing examiner excluded evidence related to her claim of a general gender bias in the Fire Department, the contested case hearing was insufficient to satisfy due process.
- Ms. Schofield’s argument is based on her erroneous belief that her discharge occurred on May 27, 2020.
- Ms. Schofield received notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before her discharge. In the process of the contested case hearing, she had the opportunity to conduct discovery, question the City’s witnesses, and present her case.
- Following the Commission’s final decision, Ms. Schofield was afforded judicial review in the district court.
- Ms. Schofield was not denied due process.
Here is a copy of the decision. It goes into considerably more detail on many of the finer points of the decision: