Court Upholds Dismissal of Florida Battalion Chief

The dismissal of a Florida battalion chief has been upheld by the US District Court for the Middle District of Florida. BC William Valencia claims he was terminated by the Haines City Fire Department in retaliation for having sought workers comp for an injury, and that he was the victim of disability discrimination.

The facts as explained in the decision are as follows:

  • Plaintiff William Valencia began working as a firefighter for Defendant Haines City, Florida, in 2001.
  • He rose through the ranks, and in 2018 became a Battalion Chief, reporting directly to the Deputy Fire Chief.
  • One of the job duties of a Battalion Chief is “running calls,” that is, going out to emergencies and commanding fire scenes.
  • Plaintiff suffered from high blood pressure and anxiety.
  • In 2012, he experienced symptoms suggesting a heart attack and went to the emergency room. Ultimately, it was determined he did not suffer a heart attack, but medical providers advised him to try to reduce his job stress in various ways. None advised him at that time that he should not run calls.
  • In 2018, Thomas Murphy became interim Fire Chief, and Plaintiff assisted him in running the department while Plaintiff was on light duty due to an arm injury.
  • Plaintiff asked Murphy to let him continue working in logistics and be excused from running calls.
  • Murphy did not require Plaintiff to run calls, although the evidence is conflicting as to whether Murphy did so as an accommodation for a disability or simply because Murphy did not think Plaintiff competent to handle the task.
  • In February 2019, Jeffrey Davidson became the new Fire Chief.
  • Plaintiff asked Davidson to excuse him from running calls.
  • Davidson did not agree, and he asked Plaintiff to provide medical documentation to support the request, which Plaintiff never did.
  • Plaintiff talked to a workers’ compensation lawyer about going out on a pension based on his medical issues, and in June 2019 the lawyer sent a letter to Davidson inquiring about this possibility.
  • The letter from the lawyer upset Davidson, who asked Plaintiff why he had consulted a lawyer and whether Plaintiff was suing him.
  • After that, Davidson counseled and then disciplined Plaintiff based on various performance issues.
  • Plaintiff describes this as Davidson placing his performance under a “microscope.”
  • In November 2019, Davidson placed Plaintiff on a “performance improvement plan” or “PIP,” which required Plaintiff to meet or show progress on certain goals and projects within 90 days.
  • Following a meeting with Plaintiff in February 2020 to discuss Plaintiff’s progress, Davidson submitted a recommendation that Plaintiff be terminated for failing to meet the PIP goals and other performance issues.
  • On March 26, 2020, City Manager Deric Feacher conducted a pre-determination hearing attended by Plaintiff, Plaintiff’s counsel, Human Resources Director Auburn Taylor, Chief Davidson, and Defendant’s counsel.
  • Feacher thereafter sustained Chief Davidson’s recommendation, and Plaintiff was terminated on April 10, 2020.

Chief Valencia initially filed suit in state court claiming workers’ compensation retaliation. He later filed an amended complaint adding claims for disability discrimination under state and federal law, and retaliation under state and federal disability discrimination law. Haines City had the case removed to federal court, and moved for summary judgment.

In granting the city’s motion, Judge Tom Barber concluded as follows:

  • Defendant [Haines City] has offered legitimate non-discriminatory and non-retaliatory reasons for Plaintiff’s discipline and termination, identifying numerous specific incidents and problems with Plaintiff’s performance as Battalion Chief in 2019.
  • Chief Davidson supported his recommendation that Plaintiff be terminated by citing the following issues, among others: multiple instances of improper use of a department purchasing card for supplies without using a tax exemption as required by department policy, failure to turn in an assignment in time for Davidson to use at a meeting, failure to send part of another assignment until reminded to do so by Davidson, turning in a report that was due in October on November 1, 2019, failing to attend a training class as directed, failing to prepare a draft purchasing procedure as directed, and coming to a meeting without a list of specific job responsibilities as directed.
  • Plaintiff was placed on a performance improvement plan.
  • The PIP required Plaintiff to demonstrate progress on various issues and projects within 90 days and …. that failure to comply with the PIP’s goals could result in discipline, including termination.
  • On February 3, 2020, Plaintiff reported to Chief Davidson that he was working on the various items for the PIP. He specifically represented in an email that he was “continuing to work on [his] presentation” for one of the projects and that he was “presently putting a power point together which will be incorporated into the presentation.”
  • In mid-February 2020, Chief Davidson directed Plaintiff to cover another Battalion Chief’s shift the next day. Because this might involve going out on fire calls, Plaintiff became extremely anxious and had to go to the emergency room with high blood pressure, followed by a two-week leave from work to recuperate.
  • Plaintiff returned to work and met with Chief Davidson on February 26, 2020, to discuss his progress on the PIP over the past 90 days.
  • Plaintiff testified that he reported on the work he had done on the various goals and projects; it is disputed whether he had any written work product to present at the meeting.
  • Plaintiff admits, however, that despite his specific representation in early February that he was “presently” working on a PowerPoint, as of the time of the meeting three weeks later, he still had not done “any” of the PowerPoint.
  • Plaintiff does not dispute that these and other instances of arguably deficient performance occurred in some fashion.
  • In short, Defendant has pointed to legitimate reasons that would motivate a reasonable employer to take the actions it did, and Plaintiff has not shown that the reasons were pretextual under the standards set forth above.
  • Defendant may have been high-handed, unfair, or wrong, but Plaintiff has pointed to no evidence that its stated reasons were not the real reasons.
  • Accordingly, Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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