Minnesota Fire Department Facing Age Discrimination Suit

An administrative services manager for the Rochester (MN) Fire Department has filed suit alleging age discrimination. Curtis Pronk filed suit last month claiming he was forced to resign effective August 31, 2021 to avoid his position being downgraded to a lower paying position.

Pronk’s suit was filed in US District Court for the District of Minnesota naming the city as the sole defendant. It alleges a violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA). The complaint accuses supervisors of unfairly criticizing his performance and referring to him as “Richard” as an “insulting substitute for calling [him]… a ‘dick.’”

In 2021, the department decided to eliminate Pronk’s administrative managers position, and reduce him to an administrative specialist. As explained in the complaint, this put Pronk in an “untenable” position:

  • The reduction of his pay to grade level four from grade level six was significant in reducing his pay. At grade level six Plaintiff’s annual salary was $134,923. At grade level four, his pay was reduced to $116,213.
  • Upon information and belief, the re-classification of Plaintiff’s position by Defendant did not follow the necessary vetting and analysis required with input from the union and the Defendant and steps for reclassification.
  • Defendant engaged in subterfuge with Plaintiff by continuing to solicit input from him in late July, 2021 about the new job description.
  • Despite having determined in June, 2021 that the changes would be made, Plaintiff was asked for input for a vague position description.
  • The request for input from Plaintiff was fruitless because the change had already been made by the Defendant.
  • Plaintiff was not provided ongoing notice of warnings or concerns regarding performance deficiencies by Defendant.
  • He was not provided documentation of performance problems.
  • Individuals who allegedly had issues with Plaintiff’s style of management did not approach him with performance issues and none were brought to his attention by the Chief or Deputy Chief.
  • The Defendant presented Plaintiff with a position summary for Administrative Services Specialist dated July 27, 2021 attached to the memo of August 9, 2021 explaining the new job position.
  • Plaintiff was sixty years old when these changes in his duties and pay were constructed by the Defendant. He planned to continue working for the Defendant to standard retirement age in his sixties. He did not plan to retire at age sixty. He would have become Medicare eligible at age sixty-five. The Defendant was aware of his age and circumstances in changing his job duties and responsibilities, and the planned reduction in pay, at all times, in 2021.
  • Upon information and belief, no younger employees in the Defendant’s Fire Department had their job duties changed and pay reduced unilaterally in the same manner as the Plaintiff. His job change and pay reduction was not a consequence of a structural overhaul or changes in the Defendant’s Fire Department’s administrative functions and pay structure, or Plaintiff’s genuine performance. Instead, the changes were implemented specifically for Plaintiff who was 60-years old to make his working conditions so intolerable and untenable to force him to leave his employment with the Defendant.
  • Plaintiff was an experienced administrator with Defendant with no history of performance problems or warnings. During the last eight months of his employment Plaintiff was subjected to ongoing changes in job duties, assignments, and interactions, coupled with unrealistic expectations by Defendant, and vague allegations about unspecified areas needing improvement with no specific means of measuring improvement.
  • Plaintiff was presented with an untenable choice of taking early retirement by August 31, 2021 or having his pay reduced, job duties increased without specifics, and subject to increased scrutiny. Because his pay would be reduced significantly by the Defendant to grade level four, and to mitigate his damages, coupled with increased job duties, and undefined expectations, Plaintiff retired effective the end of August, 2021.
  • Plaintiff was not given notice of genuine performance deficiencies. Nor was he afforded true opportunity to correct any actual deficiencies affecting his performance. He was put in an untenable and intolerable position of enduring a significant reduction in pay, change in job position, increase in duties for less pay, and unspecified additional duties and performance expectations by the Defendant because of his age.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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