Indiana Firefighter’s Discrimination and Retaliation Claims Rejected

An Indiana firefighter who was demoted for disobeying orders related to rumor-spreading about a subordinate’s sexual preferences, has lost his lawsuit alleging discrimination and retaliation due to his race, disability, age and use of FMLA leave. Brad Collier brought the action against the City of New Albany.

Judge Robert L. Miller, Jr, of the US District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, outlined the extensive factual allegations that led to Collier’s demotion from captain to sergeant in 2019. The allegations date back to interpersonal problems of a racial nature that occurred in 2015; his suffering of a heart attack in 2018; a hernia operation in 2019; and interpersonal problems with a subordinate identified in the decision as “John Doe.”

Quoting from the decision:

  • Mr. Collier was captain of a fire crew in November 2019. His crew consisted of Sergeant Madell Peters, Nate Sullivan, and “John Doe.”
  • Mr. Doe was on medical leave in early November. On the morning of November 1, Mr. Collier was doing chores at the firehouse. Mr. Sullivan approached Mr. Collier and told him that John Doe wasn’t “the guy you think he is.”
  • Mr. Sullivan showed Mr. Collier a video of Mr. Doe having sex with two other adult men and suggested that if Mr. Doe would have sex with men, he was capable of “messing around with” children.
  • Mr. Sullivan then showed a report from Child Protective Services involving Mr. Doe, suggesting he might be a child abuser.
  • Mr. Peters then entered the room and viewed the video.  The three men called Battalion Chief Bowyer to the station and saved the materials to a thumb drive.
  • After Chief Bowyer arrived, they shared the information with him, and he summoned Deputy Chief Gadd to the station.
  • They described the information to Deputy Chief Gadd, who in turn called Fire Chief Matt Juliot and the New Albany Police Chief to the station.
  • When the fire chief and police chief arrived, the three men admitted the flash drive contained no material involving children but demanded that Mr. Doe be disciplined and that they not work with him anymore.
  • The police chief checked into the Child Protective Services allegations and learned that they had been investigated and deemed unfounded.
  • Battalion Chief Bowyer explained that Mr. Doe was “macho” and might kill himself if this information got out, though Fire Chief Juliot understand the statement to be more hyperbole than literal.
  • The police chief ordered the men to destroy the thumb drive and not to discuss the materials. Chief Juliot and Deputy Chief Gadd reiterated that the command was a formal order.
  • Mr. Collier and his crew continued to talk about John Doe. Mr. Collier told some colleagues on another crew about the incident. He described in some detail the video of Mr. Doe being intimate with two men and implied there was material relating to minors.
  • Around that same time, Mr. Collier called Battalion Chief Bowyer to discuss “safety concerns” about Mr. Doe.
  • He told Battalion Chief Bowyer that Mr. Doe had peed the bed before, might have stolen and then returned exercise equipment from the fire station, seemed to have anabolic steroids sitting in the station, and that colleagues said Mr. Doe would “flare up” when out drinking with colleagues. He demanded a meeting to address those concerns.
  • On November 7, Mr. Collier, Mr. Peters, and Mr. Sullivan met with Deputy Chief Gadd, Battalion Chief Bowyer, an HR representative, and the city controller. Mr. Collier and the other two firefighters insisted that Mr. Doe be disciplined for what he did and that they could no longer work with him because they feared he’d try to get into bed or into the shower with them.
  • Mr. Collier then complained for the first time about a comment Mr. Doe made seven or eight months earlier.
  • Mr. Collier overheard Mr. Doe trying to convince a friend to apply for an open position on Mr. Collier’s crew.
  • Mr. Doe told the friend he was “outnumbered two to one.” Mr. Collier thought this referred to race because there were two Black men on the crew and one white man.
  • New Albany’s human resources officer recommended that the three men be terminated for violating Mr. Doe’s rights and privacy by bringing his private sexual matters into the work environment.
  • Chief Juliot and Deputy Chief Gadd decided instead to recommend that Mr. Sullivan be terminated, Mr. Collier be demoted and placed on unpaid suspension for five days, and Mr. Peters be placed on unpaid suspension for 1.5 days.
  • Mr. Sullivan’s discipline was to be the most severe because he introduced the video and Child Protective Services report to the workplace, and because he implied there was child sex abuse material when he knew there wasn’t.
  • Mr. Collier’s discipline was to be more severe than Mr. Peters’s because Mr. Collier was of a higher rank so was held to higher standards and was expected to lead by example.
  • Mr. Peters accepted his punishment and immediately served his 1.5-day unpaid suspension. He was later promoted to captain.
  • Mr. Sullivan challenged his proposed termination and ended up serving a ten-day unpaid suspension.
  • Although suspensions usually didn’t last more than five days, Mr. Sullivan was at the lowest rank so couldn’t be demoted. His suspension was lengthened instead.
  • Mr. Collier first admitted that he violated rules and regulations by disobeying direct orders and agreed that as a captain, he was held to a higher standard than many other firefighters.
  • Deputy Chief Gadd and Chief Juliot passed on the recommendations to the Board of Works, which had authority to impose discipline.
  • Once Mr. Collier received his notice of discipline, he refused to sign the form and demanded a hearing in front of the Board of Works.
  • Chief Juliot and Deputy Chief Gadd prepared witness statements before the hearing and reviewed the statements with Mr. Collier.
  • Rather than proceeding with the Board of Works hearing or a union grievance, Mr. Collier proposed he be suspended and demoted.
  • Mr. Collier agreed in writing on January 10, 2020, to a demotion from captain to sergeant and a five-day unpaid suspension. He also agreed to float among positions and assignments until a permanent position became available.

Collier retired on May 4, 2022. He contended that he was “made to retire approximately 20 years earlier than was considered normal.” The court rejected that claim, concluding there was no evidence he was forced to retire beyond his mere allegation. The court went on to conclude there was no proof of discrimination or retaliation, on any of the four stated grounds (race, disability, age or FMLA) and that the city was entitled to summary judgment on all counts.

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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