Massachusetts Firefighter Claims He was Wrongfully Terminated for Whistleblowing

A Massachusetts firefighter who was dismissed earlier this year, is suing the Town of Natick and its fire chief claiming he was retaliated against for refusing to falsify a report. Skyler Sarkisian filed suit in Middlesex County Superior Court alleging several violations of Massachusetts state law, including a law that prohibits retaliating against employees who refuse to violate a law.

The suit was originally filed in April, with an amended complaint being filed in June. Sarkisian was in the final month of his probationary period when he was dismissed on January 31, 2023. As explained in the complaint:

  • Sarkisian, pursuant to M. G .L. c. 31, § § 34 and 61, was hired as a “probationary” firefighter for a one-year period.
  • Natick considered his employment to have begun on February 23, 2022 and, therefore, his probationary period to last until February 23, 2023 when Mr. Sarkisian was to become a full-time tenured firefighter.
  • Sarkisian’s employment, while subject to a one-year probationary period, could only be terminated during that period if his “conduct or capacity” or the “character or quality” of his work was “not satisfactory to the appointing authority.”
  • Sarkisian’s tenure with the NFD was marked by success and growth.
  • During the course of Mr. Sarkisian’s employment, he received no negative feedback whatsoever about the performance of his EMT or firefighter duties.
  • His conduct or abilities were never questioned and the quality of his character was never doubted.
  • In fact, the sole criticism ever offered to Mr. Sarkisian during the course of his employment was on January 18, 2023, less than two weeks before his unlawful termination.
  • On that date, Firefighter/Paramedic John Georges, who is the EMS Coordinator for the NFD, directed Sarkisian to certify that a Paramedic had performed an Advanced Life Support assessment on a patient when no such assessment was performed.
  • Sarkisian objected to and resisted Mr. Georges’ directive because no such assessment had been performed.
  • Moreover, an EMT could not certify an assessment which could be performed only by a Paramedic.
  • It was common practice in Natick to coerce EMTs to certify that a Paramedic performed an ALS assessment when no such assessment was performed, despite the fact that EMTs are not authorized to so certify.
  • This fraudulent practice was a revenue raiser by the NFD as it caused insurers to pay Natick for assessment services that were never rendered.
  • Sarkisian objected to this practice, much to the consternation of Chief Ferschke, Mr. Georges and NFD leadership.
  • Less than two weeks later [on January 31, 2023], Natick attempted to terminate Mr. Sarkisian.
  • The hamhanded termination attempt, and the circumstances relating to the same, demonstrate a gross disregarding of the law of the Commonwealth, the rights of Mr. Sarkisian and the safety of the people of Natick.
  • Chief Ferschke was the only meeting attendee to speak, making assertions about a “hard decision” and “exercising his right” before handing Mr. Sarkisian a letter that: 1) misspelled Mr. Sarkisian’s first and last names; 2) did not include his address; and 3) complied with no known business letter format, employing no salutation and utilizing odd and uneven spacing between lines and punctuation.
  • More concerning than the slipshod appearance of the letter, however, was the content – or lack of content within.
  • Despite the requirement of M.G.L. c. 31, § 34, that Mr. Sarkisian’s probationary employment only be terminated for stated unsatisfactory performance or character shortcomings, Chief Ferschke asserted that it was the NFD’s “absolute right” to terminate Mr. Sarkisian prior to the end of Mr. Sarkisian’s probationary period without cause, effectively- and unlawfully treating Mr. Sarkisian as an “at-will” employee.
  • Chief Ferschke provided no reason whatsoever for the termination, despite the statutory requirement that such written notice to terminate a probationary employee’s employment state “in detail the particulars wherein his conduct or capacity or the character or quality of his work is not satisfactory, whereupon his service shall terminate.” See M.G.L. c. 31, § 34.

The complaint further claims that after Sarkisian retained counsel and informed the town that the January 31, 2023 termination letter was defective under state law, the town realized its mistake. However, since this occurred after February 23, 2023, Sarkisian had become a tenured employee.

In response, the town informed Sarkisian that his probationary period did not end or February 23, 2023, but rather ran until May 19, 2023 because his attendance at the state fire academy “tolled” the running of his probationary year. The town then sought to re-terminate him on March 16, 2023. According to the complaint, the fire chief apparently congratulated three other Natick firefighters who were hired the same day as Sarkisian and attended the same fire academy class on their completion of their probationary year on February 23, 2023.

Sarkisian seeks reinstatement, backpay, damages and attorneys fees both because the town failed to properly comply with state law in terminating him, as well as due to his whistleblowing activities. Here is a copy of both the original and amended complaints.

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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