Wrongful Termination Suit of Deaf Idaho Firefighter Headed to Trial

A lawsuit filed by a deaf Idaho firefighter who was terminated, is headed to trial after a federal court refused to grant him summary judgment. Matthew Burgoyne was terminated from the Rock Creek Rural Fire Protection District for insubordination in 2019.

Prior to his termination, Burgoyne served as a volunteer firefighter for the district for roughly 18 months. During that time, he completed numerous wildland training programs. However, the department prohibited him from operating on the interior of structure fires. He also alleges some of the firefighters called him names and yelled at him, resulting in him seeking mental health counseling after just four months with the department.

On July 3, 2019 Burgoyne was terminated following two instances of insubordination: (1) texting the dispatch center after being ordered not to because it disrupted operations; and (2) texting firefighters with questions after being told to direct all questions to the chief.

Burgoyne filed suit against the district and the Rock Creek Firefighters Association, Inc. claiming disability discrimination, hostile work environment, disparate treatment, failure to accommodate, failure to engage in an interactive process, and retaliation. He moved for partial summary judgment claiming he was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

US Magistrate Judge Candy W. Dale denied Burgoyne’s motion, concluding there were important factual questions that would have to be decided by a jury. Quoting from the decision (with internal citations and quotation marks removed for clarity of reading):

  • Summary judgment is appropriate where a party can show that, as to any claim or defense, there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.
  • The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to a material fact.
  • This shifts the burden to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in their favor.
  • In cases alleging disability discrimination under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Idaho Human Rights Act, the claims are analyzed the same and, consequently, Burgoyne’s claims for disability discrimination under each statutory scheme can be addressed together.
  • Plaintiff must establish a causal connection between the termination of his employment or other adverse action and his disability.
  • Burgoyne argues that he is a qualified individual capable of performing the essential functions of a volunteer firefighter with or without reasonable accommodation.
  • Defendants argue there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Burgoyne is a qualified individual with a disability.
  • Assuming Burgoyne is qualified, Defendants maintain there are disputed issues of material fact regarding his claims of discrimination.
  • Defendants insist Burgoyne’s employment was terminated for insubordination, a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.
  • Defendants therefore contend that the termination of Burgoyne’s employment would have occurred regardless of whether Defendants discriminated on the basis of his alleged disability. Burgoyne argues to the contrary, that “but-for” his disability, his employment would not have been terminated.
  • Based on the discussion both at the hearing and as set forth below, the Court finds Burgoyne has not carried his burden on this motion to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

The case has been scheduled for trial on February 6, 2023. Here is earlier coverage including a copy of the complaint. Here is a copy of the ruling.

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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