Colorado Union President Challenges Termination

The union president of IAFF Local 3214 has filed suit in federal court alleging the Mountain View Fire Protection District fired him in retaliation for his union activities, and did so in a way that violated his Constitutional Rights. Benjamin Carter was fired on March 21, 2023 following an investigation into “disseminating confidential information about a religious accommodation, insubordination, disrespectful attitudes and behaviors, and falsification of records”.

Carter claims that prior to the incident giving rise to his termination, the department delayed his promotion to lieutenant and threatened him with discipline because of his union activities. The complaint explains the facts leading to his termination as follows:

  • On January 30, 2023, Plaintiff Carter went to District Fire Station No. 13 to prepare bunker gear for a group of recently hired new employees, which was part of his duties as Assistant Quartermaster.
  • While at the station, a vendor dropped off equipment for the new hires, and the vendor stated to Carter that one of the new hires requested to not have any American flags placed on their bunker gear.
  • Carter walked to Captain Shad Bennet’s office to speak with him about this request, and Captain Bennet had not heard about the request.
  • Captain Bennet used a speakerphone to call District HR Specialist Gina Daly, who stated that she was the person who submitted the request to the vendor.
  • Plaintiff Carter asked HR Specialist Daly why someone would not want an American flag on their uniform, and Daly replied that it was a religious accommodation that had been approved by Chief Beebe and the District’s legal department.
  • Carter then stated that he was unaware of any religion that would require such an accommodation and Daly then informed Plaintiff Carter that the new hire was a Jehovah’s Witness.
  • During the speakerphone conversation with Captain Bennet and HR Specialist Daly, Carter asked what other accommodations would be necessary to ensure the comfort of the new hire. Daly responded the new hire could not be assigned to raise or lower the American flag at the station.
  • Carter replied that the Union would need to know of any other accommodations, as well as whether training could be offered to employees on religious accommodation.
  • Daly agreed, stating that the new hire’s crew would need extra training.
  • At no time during the speakerphone conversation with Captain Bennet and Plaintiff Carter did Captain Bennet or HR Specialist Daly indicate that any fact concerning the request or provision of the religious accommodation to the new hire was confidential.
  • After the speakerphone conversation with Captain Bennet and HR Specialist Daly, Plaintiff Carter left Captain Shad Bennet’s office and spoke with Battalion Chief Flagg about the new employee’s religious accommodation.
  • Plaintiff Carter and Battalion Chief Flagg conducted a Google search to research how to accommodate a Jehovah’s Witness.
  • In the following days, from January 31, 2023 to February 5, 2023, Plaintiff Carter had several conversations with other fire fighters on and off duty about how to best accommodate the new hire. Battalion Chief Flagg also had conversations with fire fighters about the religious accommodation.
  • In these conversations with his fellow fire fighters, Plaintiff Carter expressed his concern with the lack of information from the District about how to best accommodate the new hire. He also spoke with other fire fighters about how the department is changing, and they need to appropriately accommodate those who request accommodations.
  • On February 9, 2023, Plaintiff Carter had a meeting with Chief Beebe concerning a grievance that the Union had filed, unrelated to the new hire or religious accommodation. The meeting was contentious. No more than three hours after the contentious grievance meeting, Deputy Chief Sterling Folden informed Plaintiff Carter that, effective immediately, he was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into allegedly discriminatory behavior.
  • On or about February 9, 2023, Plaintiff Carter contacted the District’s Human Resources office to inquire about the investigation. The Human Resources office informed him that the purpose of the investigation was to investigate discrimination about a religious accommodation.
  • Deputy Chief Jeff Webb conducted numerous interviews as part of the investigation, but Plaintiff Carter was never informed of who Deputy Chief Webb interviewed and Plaintiff Carter was not himself interviewed.
  • On February 27, 2023, Deputy Chief Webb presented Plaintiff Carter with an evidence summary and stated that Plaintiff Carter could give a statement. Deputy Chief Webb did not ask Plaintiff Carter any questions during this meeting.
  • On the morning of March 21, 2023, Defendant Beebe asked Plaintiff Carter several questions related to the investigation.
  • On March 21, 2023, Plaintiff Carter received a termination letter signed by Chief Beebe. The letter stated that after an investigation, Chief Beebe had decided that Plaintiff Carter should be terminated for disseminating confidential information about a religious accommodation, insubordination, disrespectful attitudes and behaviors, and falsification of records.
  • His March 21, 2023 termination was the first discipline that Plaintiff Carter had received in his fourteen years of employment with the District.
  • Fire Chief Beebe, Deputy Chief Folden, Battalion Chief Flagg and Captain Cody Bennett all of spoke in non-confidential settings about the new hire’s religious accommodation, yet did not receive any sort of discipline.
  • Plaintiff Carter’s termination letter signed by Chief Beebe stated that “[T]he Fire Chief’s decision is the final decision for the District for all purposes. Discipline matters are not appealable to the Board. You have the right to appeal the decision to the Fire Chief based on new or additional information.”
  • On or about April 10, 2023, Plaintiff Carter, through counsel, submitted an appeal to Chief Beebe.
  • On or about April 12, 2023, Plaintiff Carter received a denial of his appeal, signed by Chief Beebe.
  • On or about April 27, 2023, Plaintiff Carter, through counsel, requested a hearing about his termination under the Fourteenth Amendment and through a hearing process that conforms with the requirements of Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill.
  • On May 5, 2023, the District denied Plaintiff Carter’s request for a hearing.

The complaint further claims the district challenged Carter’s application of unemployment benefits but he prevailed after the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Industrial Claim Appeals Panel concluded that he “did not engage in the alleged misconduct that caused the discharge.”

The four-count complaint alleges a violation of Carter’s:

  • Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process;
  • First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and assembly;
  • First and Fourteenth Amendment right to free association;
  • Rights under the Colorado Firefighter Safety Act that ensures that “firefighters have the right to engage in concerted protected activity for mutual aid and protection.”

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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