EMS can be full of interesting and tricky legal scenarios. While you can’t have an attorney ride with you, it behooves providers to have at least some familiarity with the principles, precedents, and major issues of EMS law. To that end EMS World is pleased to offer the EMS Legal Lesson of the Month.
These cases are presented by prominent attorneys in the EMS field. This month’s comes from Larry Bennett, program chair for fire science and emergency management at the University of Cincinnati. Bennett’s department publishes a monthly Fire & EMS and Safety Law newsletter; subscribe to that by e-mailing Lawrence.firstname.lastname@example.org or read the latest edition here. Find this case and more in his section on EMS cases.
Case: Benfield and Warren v. Magee, et al.
Decided: July 2018
Verdict: A Louisiana district judge held that a lawsuit by two paramedics fired by Desoto Parish EMS may proceed to trial. They were fired after plaintiff Brian Warren wrote a letter to a member of the Desoto Parish Police Jury (which appoints the commissioners that oversee Desoto Parish EMS). The judge found his speech protected.
Facts: Louisiana paramedics must complete annual training and biannual recertification, the records of which are sent to the NREMT. The recertification form includes a box for the medical director to check, indicating his approval of the hours completed. The plaintiffs alleged administrator Joe Magee directed Warren to check these boxes without the approval of medical director Joseph Farquhar, MD. The forms Warren checked included colleague Patrick Benfield’s.
In 2015 Warren sent a letter to police juror Jim Davlin that criticized practices at Desoto Parish EMS and recommended changes that included replacing certain administrators. Magee then allegedly retaliated against Warren, who alleged harassment that included denial of promotion, encouragement to quit, criticism of his religious beliefs, and false accusations of sexual impropriety.
Eighteen months later a new comedical director asked Warren how he and Benfield had become recertified. Warren explained his checking off of the NREMT forms on behalf of Farquhar. A week and a half later, Magee allegedly told Warren to quit “before something bad happened” and reportedly asked Benfield to attest that Magee had not authorized Warren indicate Farquhar’s approval on the NREMT forms. Benfield refused, and Magee then terminated both men for falsifying records.
Key quote: “The context of the letter favors a finding that the speech was private, but its form suggests that it was public. Although the question is close, the extensive amount of identifiably public concerns related to community safety and unrelated to Warren’s employment-specific grievances tip the scales enough. The Court finds that Warren has alleged facts that, if true, render the Davlin letter speech on a matter of public concern.”
Legal lesson: First Amendment free-speech cases are increasing being permitted to go to jury. Fire and EMS departments should thoroughly document reasons for termination, including employees who serve at will.