Former ‘Firefighter of the Year’ files $2M discrimination lawsuit against Dracut
Nov 12, 2019 12:46AM
● By Lisa Redmond
BOSTON – Former Firefighter of the Year Sgt. Justin George has filed a $2 million federal discrimination lawsuit against the town alleging he and his family suffered more than a year of harassment and retaliation by the town officials after he tried to resolve a town-military pay dispute.
Filed by George’s attorney Brian Rogal on Nov. 7 in U.S. District Court, the lawsuit names former Town Manager Jim Duggan, Fire Chief David Brouillette and Human Resources Director Christine Lindberg, as well as the Town of Dracut.
At a Sept. 25 Board of Selectmen’s meeting, George and other Dracut firefighters aired issues of a “hostile’’ and “toxic’’ work environment within the fire department created by Duggan and Brouillette.
George accused town officials of ruining his firefighting career and tarnishing his military career by “twisting’’ his PTSD diagnosis and triggering a year-long legal battle to try to force him to undergo a psychological evaluation to keep his job.
Rogal alleges in the federal lawsuit that his client suffered from “severe, prolonged emotional distress’’ due the harassment and intimidation created by Duggan and others.
Duggan resigned on Oct. 9 in the wake of questions over potential bidding improprieties, issues of a “toxic’ work environment at the fire department and past issues with the police department.
In the lawsuit, Rogal explains that George, a Dracut firefighter since 2010 and 2016 Firefighter of the Year, was also an elected member of the union’s bargaining committee and a member of the National Guard who has served in Afghanistan.
He was deployed to Bagram, Afghanistan as a medic between September 2014 and June 2015. Due to his continuing service in the National Guard he is required to undergo military training one weekend a month and two to three weeks each year.
By law, the town is required to allow George to meet his military obligations and to pay the difference between his firefighter’s salary and military pay while participating in military training, the lawsuit states.
Due to his experiences in Afghanistan, George has been diagnosed with PTSD and has been in counseling since 2015. The PTSD, however, has “never interfered’’ with his work as a firefighter, according to the lawsuit.
In January 2018, George inquired to Town Finance Director Ann Vandal about his pay while on military leave. Based on his calculations, he determined he was not receiving the proper pay.
“Despite Mr. George’s repeated pleas to address the wage error, the town refused to correct the calculation errors,’’ Rogal wrote in the lawsuit.
To resolve the issue, George, a Dracut resident, placed an article before Town Meeting that would force the town to correct the issue.
His push to resolve the issue created “an adverse relationship’’ with town officials, including Duggan and Brouillette, the lawsuit states. Brouillette called George into his office and attempted to “harass and coerce him’’ into stopping his efforts, Rogal wrote.
When that failed, Rogal alleges Brouilette, with Duggan’s knowledge, began a “campaign of harassment’’ against George including name calling and questioned George’s PTSD diagnosis, belittling George’s service, the lawsuit states.
In April of 2018, George requested from the town’s Human Resources director a copy of the town’s hostile work environment policy but learned the town didn’t have one.
He filed a harassment complaint on June 2, 2018 against the town, George accused officials of harassment and retaliation for his attempts to correct the military pay issue. Lindberg notified the parties of the complaint.
After learning of the complaint, Brouillette accused George of abusing his sick leave in connection with him military leave in another alleged attempt to harass and intimate George. George met with Lindberg on June 16, 2018 to discuss his allegation of a hostile work environment.
During a contract negotiation meeting between Duggan and union officials, Duggan commented that if the military leave article passes Town Meeting it could result in fewer funds available for raises.
On June 26, 2018, George met with Lindberg and town labor counsel Peter McQuillan about the claim of a hostile work environment at the fire department.
Two days later, George filed a public document request with Duggan in connection with the military leave dispute. On Aug. 2, 2018, George emailed Lindberg asking about the status of the military leave pay dispute.
Within hours of sending the email, Duggan placed George on administrative leave, banned him from the Dracut Fire Department property and ordered him to return station keys and his ID, the lawsuit states. Duggan also ordered George to undergo a psychiatric evaluation or he could not return to work.
Duggan publicly denied George’s allegations of retaliation, noting that alleged changes in George’s behavior and the Town Meeting article were separate issues.
Rogal wrote, “At no time prior to being ordered to undergo a psychiatric examination did anyone acting on behalf of the town inform Mr. George or the union of any issues or complaints regarding his behavior or fitness for duty.’’
Under law, veterans are protected from retaliatory conduct by their civilian employers for their military service, Rogal wrote. And retaliating against an employee for objecting to a practice or policy is a violation of the law, he wrote.
The union stepped in asking Duggan for paperwork associated with the suspension and order for psychiatric evaluation. The town refused.
The union and George filed a lawsuit in Middlesex Superior Court seeking an injunction to prevent the town from forcing George to undergo a psychiatric evaluation until an arbitrator decided whether the town had the right to order such an evaluation.
An injunction was ordered and ultimately the arbitrator ruled against the town. The arbitrator wrote, “the town’s decision to direct Mr. George to have a psychological evaluation was directly related to Mr. George’s advocacy on the issue of military pay…which is not a legitimate reason to submit to a psychological examination…’’
While George returned to work without the examination, he also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming the town discriminated against him. The EEOC found that the town failed to show that it had a medically valid reason to require the examination or to suspend him.
Although he has returned to work, at the time of his suspension, George was next in line for promotion to lieutenant. Due to the stigma attached to him, it is unlikely George will ever be promoted, Rogal wrote.
Town officials have declined to comment citing pending litigation.