Arizona Firefighter Claims Termination Was Retaliation for Reporting Illegal Conduct

A firefighter who was terminated by the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management after reporting misconduct by members of a wildland corrections crew, has filed suit alleging retaliation, age discrimination, disability discrimination and wrongful termination. JD Ottman filed suit in federal court alleging both federal and state claims.

Ottman contends that after he reported concerns about members of a correctional firefighting unit using illegal substances, he was advised to “shut his mouth” and threatened with being replaced as the unit’s supervisor. As explained in the complaint:

  • Plaintiff worked for DFFM for approximately 9 years and 10 months.
  • During the course of his employment, Plaintiff developed constant migraine who caused him to lack sleep and concentration. DFFM was aware of his condition.
  • On January 10, 2020, Plaintiff submitted a written explanation for his refusal to operate the Escudilla Crew (a Department of Corrections Wildland Crew) to District Manager Robert Arthur.
  • Among other things Plaintiff, reported that “some crew members were involved in dealing a drug called spice while on the fire crews.”
  •  Spice, or K2, is a synthetic designer drug having effects similar to marijuana.
  • Plaintiff went on to report that he intended to “shut the crew down due to safety concerns to protect both agencies.”.
  • Plaintiff’s written reporting was done via email. Use of illegal drug use, especially by a fire crew, is against public policy and against federal and state law.
  • Instead, Plaintiff was told to shut his mouth, or he would be replaced by this unqualified younger assistant, Robert Pena.
  • DFFM Manager Bob Arthur hired Mr. Pena twice.
  • DFFM did not seem to even acknowledge Plaintiff’s complaint, much less investigate, or address it.
  • DFFM’s apparent “resolution” to the complaint that firefighters were using and selling drugs on the job was to remove the supervisor reporting the misconduct and replace him with Mr. Pena.
  • Plaintiff submitted his report just over a month prior to his discharge.
  • Upon information and beliefs Robert Pena was then assigned to manage the Escudilla crew.
  • In February 2020, Plaintiff expected to be interviewed regarding his report about unlawful drug use.
  • Instead, Plaintiff was subjected to baseless accusations, harassment, and interrogation by John Truett and Rose Strike, human resources, triggering a massive migraine.
  • Due to the severity of his migraine, produced by the stress of the meeting, Plaintiff had to take a day off.
  • Mr. Arthur approved Plaintiff’s time off, but Mr. Truett did not.
  • Mr. Truett told Plaintiff that he was to report to work with his health condition and if he did not, he would be insubordinate.
  • Plaintiff sent several emails discussing his health condition and the reason why he needed a sick day.
  • Plaintiff was placed on a two-week suspension or administrative leave for taking a sick day.
  • During Plaintiff’s two-week leave Plaintiff was restricted to remain in his home and did clerical work.
  • Plaintiff was advised by Mr. Arthur that he will be notified about any future changes and other disparaging remarks.
  • Plaintiff was released from duty with no cause and told to bring his belongings to the office, was presented with a letter of termination on February 19, 2020.
  • [Following his termination, Ottman was hired by the Pinetop Fire District.]
  • Upon information and beliefs, in December 2020, Mr. Truett contacted Plaintiff, berated and harassed him over a scheduling matter. Mr. Truett tried multiple times to convince Plaintiff and his crew to leave a job site a day early, which would have likely resulted in discipline and losing at least 12 hours’ pay.
  • Mr. Truett was rude and condescending, as documented by a neutral third party who was present.
  • Mr. Truett’s behavior constitutes ongoing harassment and interference against Plaintiff by DFFM via its agent, John Truett.
  • Plaintiff filed a complaint with the EEOC for discrimination dated October 13, 2020.
  • On August 29, 2022, the EEOC issued a determination finding reasonable cause to believe DFFM discriminated Plaintiff for the reason of his age in violation of the ADEA.
  • After DFFM refused to participate in any mediation attempt, the EEOC issued a notice of right to sue on August 7, 2023.

The complaint includes claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), state law retaliation for reporting illegal activity, and a state law age and disability discrimination claim. 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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