NORTH YARMOUTH — A former Fire-Rescue Department paramedic has filed notice he intends to sue town officials for $400,000 or more unless a settlement is reached over his firing last December.
Former Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Services Bill Young was fired Dec. 1, 2014. He and Jeff Toorish, a lieutenant medic with the department who resigned the same day, claim town officials violated their civil rights.
Young, who in January filed a complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, on Tuesday signed a Notice of Tort Claim, which is required before a lawsuit can be filed against a municipality, according to John Richardson, Young’s attorney.
The document gives the town notice of Young’s intention to sue in the near future, and should encourage settlement negotiations before the issue has to go to court.
The claim names the town, the Board of Selectmen, Town Manager Rosemary Roy, and Fire Chief Greg Payson as defendants.
The Human Rights Commission claim is pending, and is a separate issue from Tuesday’s claim, Richardson said. The case claims Young’s rights were violated under the Maine Whistleblower’s Protection Act, according to the tort claim notice.
It claims town officials violated both the state and U.S. constitutions, state law, and the town charter by firing Young “without cause or just cause,” and by not adhering to the town’s due process requirements.
“We’re filing a claim that … the town illegally terminated (Young), the town then defamed him, violated his statutory and constitutional rights, and also … caused emotional distress,” Richardson said. “It’s very difficult in a small town to get your reputation back, but that’s what we’re going to do.”
He added that “we’ve attempted, many times, to settle this case, and this unfortunately seems to be more about punishing Bill, and about the egos of certain town officials, than about wanting to do the right thing, and settle this in the best interests of the citizens of North Yarmouth.”
“We would prefer to settle than to fight,” Richardson added, “but we’re given no alternative but to fight, at this point.”
Young on Monday said the town has had opportunities to defuse the situation. “We are just amazed that it really has gone as far as it has, and can’t understand why that they did not want to sit down and make this work out,” he said.
The claim states that Young has suffered injuries valued at more than $400,000.
“Any specific damages referenced are intended to be placeholders pursuant to the statutory limits to preserve legal rights in the event this matter can’t be resolved,” Paul Brunetti, an attorney working with Richardson on the case, said in an email Tuesday. “It is our hope that the issues and concerns we have raised with the Town can be addressed out of Court without the need to pursue a full-blown lawsuit. If this can’t be resolved, then we would have two years from the date of the incidents to file a claim with the Court.”
Roy said in an email Tuesday that the town’s “next step is to forward this information to the Maine Municipal Association (legal services) and they will take over from here representing the town as needed.”
She declined further comment.
Steve Palmer, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, Tuesday said he was “stunned” by the notice, adding that some of the claims – such as that the defendants’ conduct with Young was “so ‘extreme and outrageous’ as to exceed ‘all possible bounds of decency'” – make it sound like they were “tarring and feathering” him.
“It’s extremely dramatic, it’s over the top,” Palmer said. “I don’t know how anyone could come to that conclusion. … But he sees it from a different point of view.”
“We did what we thought was fair and decent to this gentleman,” Palmer said. “… I think the town has worked very hard to reconcile this in a reasonable manner, and I thought that the conditions that he come back were certainly very … generous.”
Toorish said in December that his departure and Young’s firing followed disagreements that escalated after the town banned firefighters from washing their private vehicles at the fire station.
Roy has said the practice was prohibited after the town received complaints. Young emailed Roy on Nov. 30, 2014, about the situation, according to a Dec. 8 reprimand letter from Payson, who criticized Young for taking the dispute outside the department.
Palmer has said Young sent him the email first, and that he forwarded it to Roy without notifying selectmen, since he considered the matter internal and because selectmen are prohibited from having direct involvement with employees.
The reprimand letter to Young stated that employees cannot ignore the chain of command “unless authorized or an unexpected abnormal event occurs.”
The “issue of employees going around their department head is not (taken) lightly,” it added, noting a prior incident involving Young, and said a third would force “further action,” including demotion or firing.
“It was a matter of being patient,” Palmer said Tuesday, noting that Young should have worked the matter out with the fire chief. “That’s all we were asking. … That’s a pretty simple, straightforward, non-combative, non-confrontational approach to solving a problem.”
In a blog he posted at nyourtown.com in February, Young said “it is important to understand, as a resident of the town, it is my right to be able to communicate my concerns to my elected officials. It states that in the 1st amendment of the Constitution of the United States as well as the State Constitution.”
Toorish said the letter of reprimand was not signed, and has questioned whether it was Payson who wrote it. Neither Payson, Palmer, nor Roy responded to that question.
When a Dec. 11, 2014, meeting with firefighters and Roy failed to resolve anything, Toorish said, he resigned and left the meeting. In his testimony, Young said a discussion between Roy and him over his roles as a private citizen and employee of the town led to the manager firing him.
Young claimed he was told he was fired because he was “threatening and disrespectful,” adding, “(t)hat is simply not true.”
Young said a mediation session in early February included him, Payson, and their attorneys, and he was offered a chance to return to work, but without his pre-firing rank, for three months.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all,” Young said Feb. 18. “… What, am I supposed to earn something back? I’ve been there since 2001; I’ve earned it.”
Payson then offered to have him return to the department at the same rank, with a three-month probation period, Young said.
Payson on Feb. 18 declined to discuss those conversations, and referred questions to Roy.
Young said he learned from Payson Feb. 10 that the chief could not keep the deal. Young said he was instead offered a return, albeit without his rank for two months. He did not accept that deal.
Roy said Feb. 18 that she had read Young’s statement, and there were several inaccuracies regarding his conversations with her.
This week, she shared a March 10 letter from her to Young that offered him a return to work March 24, with a few conditions. They included a 60-day probationary period, when he would have to respond to at least 40 percent of incoming rescue calls and 20 percent of fire calls, and take part in at least half of scheduled meetings and trainings.
“During your leave, Chief Payson has reviewed and restructured the officer program in order to best suit the needs of the department,” Roy continued. “The chain of command is now established as Chief, one Deputy Chief and an Assistant Chief. Reflecting on the events of December 11, 2014, which led to you being placed on administrative leave, Chief Payson and I believe that it is in the best interests of the department for you to return as a Firefighter/Paramedic, but not as an officer.
“Your conduct on December 11th was and is not acceptable from an officer and a leader in the department,” the letter continued. “While we admire your skills, dedication and background, much more is required from someone who is assigned to a departmental leadership position.”
Roy concluded by stating she is “optimistic about the possibility that we can return to our positive working relationships and work for the betterment of the department and the citizens of North Yarmouth.”
Young said Monday that the Board of Selectmen recently denied his request for a public hearing to discuss the matter.
Given the nature of public comments at meetings of the board in recent months, which Palmer said could at times be insulting and oppressive, “we didn’t need to have a spectacle in front of the town,” the chairman said.
Roy’s March 10 letter told him he could “come back as a paramedic if I jump through hoops and eat tigers for breakfast,” Young said. “… I did nothing wrong; they’re making it punitive. And you just can’t allow people to do that.”