Fire Chief Not Entitled Qualified Immunity

Written on 04/16/2022
Will Aitchison

Qualified immunity shields gov­ernment officials performing discre­tionary tasks from civil liability insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known. For a right to be “clearly established,” the unlawfulness of the defendants’ conduct must be apparent based on then-existing law. When analyzing qualified immunity claims, courts begin by asking whether the facts make out a violation of a constitutional or statutory right and if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defen­dant’s alleged misconduct. A negative answer results in the application of qualified immunity in favor of the defendant official.

These principles were analyzed in a recent case involving Andrew Brennan, a firefighter for the City of Everett, Massachusetts, who sued the City of Everett and Fire Chief Anthony Carli.

In November 2017, Brennan, a captain in the department, was work­ing a fire detail at a construction site when he suggested that an ambulance be called for an injured employee. The paramedic on site refused to do so and shouted at Brennan. Brennan reported the incident to a deputy chief, and a few days later, he made a report to the Office of Emergency Medical Services (OEMS) and copied Carli on the report.

Carli met with Brennan and ad­vised him that he broke the chain of command by reporting the incident directly to OEMS. Thereafter Carli showed increasing hostility towards Brennan. In 2018, Carli disciplined Brennan for abusing sick time; the discipline was ultimately rescinded.

In May 2019, Brennan experi­enced stress due to medical situations involving his family. Carli met with Brennan at the behest of the union president following a conversation between Carli and the union pres­ident about Brennan’s stress. Carli told Brennan that it was brought to his attention that Brennan was “not okay” during roll call. In response, Brennan explained his circumstances, and asked for leave under the FMLA.

Carli failed to provide Brennan with any FMLA information. Instead, Carli arranged for a mental health evaluation and drug test for Brennan later that day. After being evaluated, Brennan was cleared to return to work immediately. When Brennan returned to the fire station, Brennan was met by several Everett police officers who were standing near his car; Brennan’s firefighter gear had been placed inside the car. Police officers seized Brennan’s personal firearms, (both lawfully stored in his car at the fire station and those at his residence) and his license to carry.

A few days later, Brennan was evaluated by a psychiatrist who advised him to remain out of work for six weeks. In September 2019, Brennan was reevaluated and cleared to return to work. Carli scheduled an indepen­dent medical examination (IME) with a different psychiatrist in October 2019, who concluded that Brennan was not fit to return to duty based on reports of Brennan’s erratic behavior and his denial of the same.

Brennan filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) against Car­li and the psychiatrist who conducted the October 2019 IME. In December 2019 and February 2020, another doctor conducted an IME; this doctor concluded that there was insufficient evidence for him to opine on whether Brennan was fit for duty. In March 2020, Carli sent a letter to Brennan that he was to return to work. The letter advised Brennan that if he was “involved in any incidents of concern he would be subject to further appro­priate action including, depending on the circumstances, an involuntary separation from employment.”

The question for the Court was whether Carli’s conduct was shielded by qualified immunity. The Court found that “Brennan alleged that Carli placed him on leave and provided false information to medical evaluators un­der the false belief that Brennan was mentally unfit. In so doing, Brennan alleged that Carli interfered with his rights by ‘regarding him as disabled and denying him the full benefits of employment,’ causing damages. Put another way, Brennan claimed that he had a right to be free of discrimination by Carli based on a perceived or actual disability. On these facts, the com­plaint made out claims of violations of clearly established law of which a reasonable fire chief would be aware.

“Brennan has also claimed that he was threatened with discipline or termination after his return to work, without any standards or metrics for what an incident of concern would be. Brennan also alleged that Carli unlawfully discriminated against him because Brennan opposed practices that violated state law and because he filed an MCAD complaint. On these facts, the complaint made out claims of violations of clearly established law, and a reasonable fire chief would have known that he could not threaten to discipline Brennan for conduct or impairment protected by state law or vague ‘incidents of concern’ without reference to department standards or metrics.

“Brennan also claimed that Carli interfered with his FMLA rights by refusing to provide him with informa­tion about these rights upon request thereby causing damages. On these facts, the complaint alleged violations of clearly established law of which a reasonable fire chief would be aware. On this record, Carli has not estab­lished that he is entitled to invoke the affirmative defense of qualified immunity.”

Brennan v. City of Everett, 2022 WL 220874 (Mass. App. Ct. 2022).

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