Suit Claims Massachusetts Union President Terminated for Wearing Uniform to Funeral

A Massachusetts fire lieutenant and union president who was fired in April, has filed suit in conjunction with his union alleging the city’s action violates the First Amendment. Lieutenant William S. Taylor was fired by the City of Marlborough, in large measure because he wore his Class A uniform to the funeral of a firefighter.

That is the headline. However, the facts are much more complicated.

According to the complaint, Lt. Taylor had been at odds with Fire Chief Kevin Breen for years over a variety of issues ranging from the procedure for hiring new firefighters to the use of the city email system for union business. In late January, 2022 he was placed on administrative leave pending a disciplinary hearing on several charges for which the chief sought a demotion and 60-day suspension.

When placing Lt. Taylor on leave, the city gave him the following written order:

  • “Until such hearing is scheduled, you will remain on ADMINISTRATIVE LEAVE with pay. While on paid administrative leave, you cannot report for duty in any capacity, must avoid our fire stations and cannot wear a Marlborough Fire Department uniform.”

Simultaneously, Marlborough Firefighters, IAFF Local 1714 filed a prohibited practice charge (unfair labor practice) with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations against the city, claiming the discipline against Lt. Taylor was retaliation for his activities as union president.

Days after being placed on administrative leave, Lt. Taylor wore his Class A uniform to the funeral of a Marlborough firefighter. That prompted the city to modify the disciplinary charges against Lt. Taylor to include a violation of the order prohibiting him from wearing his uniform. The city also changed the penalty they were seeking to termination.

Following a disciplinary proceeding before a hearing officer, Mayor Arthur Vigeant adopted the hearing officer’s recommended and ordered Lt. Taylor demoted to firefighter and terminated. The suit alleges that the termination violated Lt. Taylor’s rights to free speech under federal and state law. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Taylor was terminated as retaliation for his expression protected by the First Amendment.
  • The City retaliated against Taylor for three separate expressive acts: (1) the socalled “bomb drop” email that mentions “crew integrity”; (2) the “Strong Work Chief!” email; and (3) Taylor’s wearing of a Class A dress uniform to a funeral.
  • None of these communications are even arguably an aspect of Taylor’s duties as a firefighter.
  • With respect to Taylor wearing a Class A uniform, clothing merits First Amendment protection when it has “an intent convey a particularized message was present, and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood was great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.”
  • Taken in the context of a funeral, donning a Class A dress uniform radiates a message of solidarity, respect, loyalty, and dedication to duty. These values are clear and easily understood by the public in the grave context of a funeral. Such symbolism is protected expression.
  • Defendants would not have taken the adverse actions they took against Taylor if he had not engaged in protected expression and association.

The suit was originally filed in Middlesex County Superior Court, and removed to the US District Court for the District of Massachusetts due to the federal constitutional claims. 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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