Magistrate Refuses to Dismiss Wrongful Termination Suit by Texas Union President

A federal magistrate judge has recommended that a lawsuit brought by a terminated IAFF union president in Texas, proceed although the fire chief should be dismissed from the case. The suit was brought by Michael Teague, who was terminated last year by the Pedernales Fire Department (Travis County Emergency Services District 8).

Teague was the president of IAFF Local 4820, and claims that his advocacy for his membership led initially to threats from district officials, and culminated in his termination in March, 2023. US Magistrate Judge Susan Hightower explained the suit as follows:

  • Teague alleges that throughout his employment with ESD 8, he “performed the essential duties of his job, and he performed them well.”
  • Teague was elected president of the local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4820, in October 2022 and held that position through March 2023.
  • During his tenure, Teague “advocate[d] on a variety of matters of public concern which were affecting ESD 8 fire fighters,” including:
    • The need for better firefighting equipment that complied with National Fire Protection Association standards;
    • Lack of personal protective equipment (“PPE”) to perform hazardous work;
    • Pay raises for ESD 8 fire fighters to ensure that they were paid at similar levels to other fire fighters in the region;
    • Wasteful spending by ESD 8 on boats and cars that ESD 8 fire fighters did not need to perform their jobs; and
    • Failure of ESD 8 to spend the budget they were allocated to help fire fighters perform their jobs.
  • Teague alleges that he spoke about these matters “because they impaired public safety and were preventing ESD 8, and its employees who were represented by IAFF Local 4820, from protecting the Pedernales community.”
  • He spoke up repeatedly and in various settings, “including public meetings with the Board of Commissioners, public gatherings within the Pedernales community, and during conversations with members of the Pedernales community.”
  • During these interactions, Teague alleges, he “was not speaking about matters of public concern as an employee of ESD 8, but as a private citizen and/or President of IAFF Local 4820.”
  • Teague alleges that each time he spoke up and advocated for ESD 8 fire fighters, “he was chastised, warned, and/or threatened by Defendants.”
  • He asserts that Defendants retaliated against him by (1) prohibiting him access to the Board of Commissioners; (2) threatening him with discipline if he continued to speak with the Board of Commissioners about the administration of the fire department; (3) placing him on administrative leave based on false allegations of sexual harassment; and (3) terminating his employment.
  • Teague alleges ESD 8 stated in a March 20, 2023 letter that his employment was terminated because he “falsified” his job application by failing to list his employment with the Austin Fire Department.
  • Teague alleges that the stated reason was pretextual, while “the real reason for his termination was his speech and advocacy over matters of public concern.”
  • Teague also alleges that his termination is “the latest in a widespread pattern and practice of behavior by Defendants in which past members of IAFF Local 4820 who have spoken up about matters of public concern have been targeted, harassed, and driven from their jobs by Defendants.”
  • Teague brings First Amendment retaliation claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against ESD 8 and [former Fire Chief Troy] Wenzel in his individual and official capacities as former Fire Chief.
  • He alleges that Defendants terminated his employment in retaliation for exercising his free speech, association, and petition rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
  • Teague also asserts a right to freedom of association claim under the Texas Labor Code against Wenzel.
  • He seeks declaratory and injunctive relief, monetary damages, and attorneys’ fees.

The district sought to have the case dismissed. Judge Hightower concluded that the case against Chief Wenzel should be dismissed because the claims are “duplicative” of the claims against the district, but she concluded that the case against the fire district should proceed. Quoting again from the decision:

  • There are two predicates for public employee speech to receive First Amendment protection: the speech must be made as a citizen and on a matter of public concern.
  • The [US Supreme] Court explained that the “critical question” in determining whether a public employee is speaking as a citizen or an employee “is whether the speech at issue is itself ordinarily within the scope of an employee’s duties, not whether it merely concerns those duties.”
  • The Court held that the fact that a citizen’s speech concerns information acquired by virtue of his public employment does not transform that speech into employee speech.
  • The Court emphasized that “our precedents dating back to Pickering have recognized that speech by public employees on subject matter related to their employment holds special value precisely because those employees gain knowledge of matters of public concern through their employment.”
  • In the Fifth Circuit, to state a claim for First Amendment retaliation, a public employee must allege that (1) he suffered an adverse employment action; (2) he spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern; (3) his interest in speaking outweighed the governmental defendant’s interest in the efficient provision of public services; and (4) the speech motivated the adverse employment action.
  • The Court finds that Teague has alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible prima facie case of First Amendment free speech/petition retaliation.
  • Teague also asserts a freedom of association claim. The First Amendment protects a public employee’s right to associate with a union.
  • For the same reasons discussed above as to Teague’s free speech/petition claims, the Court finds that Teague sufficiently alleges a plausible prima facie freedom of association retaliation claim.
  • ESD 8 argues that even if Teague has alleged a prima facie case of First Amendment retaliation, his claim should be dismissed because he has not shown that ESD 8’s proffered reason for terminating him (failing to disclose his prior employment with the Austin Fire Department) was pretextual.
  • The [so-called] Mt. Healthy affirmative defense is a factual determination for trial, not on a motion to dismiss.
  • The Court finds that the Mt. Healthy defense does not apply at this stage of the case.
  • Finally, ESD 8 argues that Teague failed to plead sufficient facts to show that the alleged constitutional violations resulted from an “official policy or custom” of ESD 8, as required to show municipal/local government liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 [Monell liability].
  • To state a claim under § 1983 against a local government unit like ESD 8, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to permit the reasonable inference that (1) an official policy or custom (2) promulgated by the local government unit’s policymaker (3) was the moving force behind the violation of a constitutional right.
  • The Court finds Teague’s allegations sufficient to allege “a widespread practice that is so common and well-settled as to constitute a custom that fairly represents municipal policy.”
  • The Court finds that Teague’s Amended Complaint contains sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.
  • It is plausible that Teague can succeed on all the elements of a First Amendment free speech, association, and petition claim.
  • Wenzel argues that Teague’s First Amendment claims against him in his official capacity should be dismissed because they are duplicative of his claims against ESD 8.
  • Because Teague’s First Amendment retaliation claims against Wenzel in his official capacity are duplicative of his claims against ESD 8, the Court recommends that they should be dismissed.
  • The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
  • The Court finds that Teague has alleged sufficient facts to overcome Wenzel’s qualified immunity defense.

Judge Hightower’s recommendations will now be considered by the district court. 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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