Court Upholds Termination of Florida Lieutenant

A Florida fire lieutenant who was demoted for insubordination, and then terminated when he refused to accept the demotion, has lost his federal court lawsuit to get his job back. Lt. Christopher Chandler claims Walton County Fire Rescue violated the Family Medical Leave Act when it demoted him, and violated the FMLA and Florida disability discrimination laws when it terminated him.

Chandler claims he suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. After he disclosed his psychological conditions to supervisors, he claims he was treated less favorably, including being assigned to less-desirable stations. He also claims he reported concerns about sexual harassment and hostile working conditions prior to the incidents that directly led to his termination.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • On March 21, 2018, Chandler injured his hip while off duty and as a result, he was on protected FMLA leave through June 30, 2018, when he was released to return to work without restrictions.
  • Chandler stated that while he was on leave, he was harassed by one fellow firefighter, Bill Blevins, about when he would return to work.
  • Also while on FMLA leave, Chandler was promoted to lieutenant, effective July 1, 2018. Chandler nonetheless contends that he was placed in a much less desirable position when he returned to work—being transferred to Station 4.
  • On August 27, 2018, while Chandler was on probation in his new position as lieutenant, he failed to report to work.
  • Chandler spoke with Turner the same day, told him that the stress of work trauma and constant overtime was impacting his home life, and he requested Employee Assistance Program information, which Turner provided.
  • About one month later, on September 21, 2018, Chandler had a verbal disagreement with District Chief Brad Newsome over a mandatory overtime assignment.
  • Newsome reported that Chandler yelled at him repeatedly, called the schedule “bullshit,” and accused Newsome of being retaliatory.
  • Chandler disagrees with this characterization of the incident and says he did not repeatedly yell at Newsome, but he admits that he was very displeased, used the word “bullshit,” and accused Newsome of being retaliatory.

The department considered terminating Chandler for insubordination over the verbal altercation with Chief Newsome, but opted to demote him and place him on probation for one year. He was terminated on October 26, 2018 after he refused to accept his demotion and new assignment.

Chandler filed suit in Walton County Judicial Circuit Court. The county had the case removed to US District Court due to the federal FMLA allegations. US District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers ruled that the department neither interfered with Chandler’s FMLA rights, nor retaliated against him for his use of FMLA leave. The court further held on the state law claims that Chandler failed to establish viable claims of disability discrimination. 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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