Court: Mass. paramedic can be disciplined for Facebook posts
Expletive-filled postings complained about colleagues, superiors, town's Police Department
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
BOURNE, Mass. — Bourne firefighter and paramedic Richard Doherty wasn’t Facebook friends with the acting fire chief for whom he worked.
But he was a Facebook friend of the chief’s secretary, who printed out the expletive-filled postings on Doherty’s Facebook page in which he complained about his colleagues, superiors and the town's Police Department. Other postings by Doherty included derogatory terms for gays that poked fun at his personal friends, and he used a photo of the gay police officer on the comedy “Reno 911” to criticize local public safety officials with whom he had had disagreements. The postings resulted in Doherty’s termination.
Now, a magistrate with the Division of Administrative Law Appeals has found there was just cause for the town to discipline the firefighter — but a lengthy suspension rather than termination may have been a more appropriate punishment.
Much of the 22-page decision is devoted to detailing Doherty’s Facebook complaints about the town’s “jackass” police and how he was stuck working at a “s**t hole” on Independence Day while “dick heads who love this Town … are involved in this stupid ass kissing politically motivated paraid [sic]. ”
In one post, Doherty called a personal friend a “pickle puffer” and sarcastically wrote that the police chief’s approach to planning for an impending storm was “who gives a f**k. ” In another post, he suggested that a photo of two animals appearing to engage in sex represented the acting fire chief and the town administrator.
In addition to the acting chief’s secretary, the postings were available for viewing by the acting chief’s daughter, as well as entire departments in other towns that had “group profiles. ”
Administrative Magistrate Judithann Burke wrote that the veteran firefighter’s defense that he was unaware the postings violated the Fire Department’s rules and regulations was “disingenuous and self-serving” and that “it would be incredulous to assume that, in all of his years as Union Vice President, the issue of applicability of certain of the Rules and Regulations to himself or fellow Union members never arise. ”
Burke wrote that Doherty could not invoke any free speech protections and that “there were many other routes by which he could have channeled his criticisms concerning public safety policies … without the levying of ad hominum attacks on specific individuals. ”
But Burke found that the town failed to apply its progressive discipline policy when it handed Doherty a pink slip instead of a suspension.
“No one ever spoke to him or asked him to stop, even though they were aware of his postings. No one informed him that the postings were seen and read by a much larger audience than his own circle of Facebook friends,” Burke said.
Bourne Town Counsel Robert S. Troy says the town is pleased that the magistrate found the facts in the case resulted in probable cause and that it will try to persuade the Civil Service Commission to let the full termination stand.
“We’ll argue that the facts show that this particular person is not qualified to be a firefighter, that when you commit so many egregious violations and speak of the community you serve in such disparaging terms, you call into question your ability to serve the public,” he says.
A message left for Doherty’s attorney, Timothy D. Zessin of Boston’s Pyle, Rome, Ehrenberg, was not returned.
Even if the Civil Service Commission upholds Doherty’s termination, the legal battle over his firing may continue.
The ex-firefighter has filed a civil rights complaint in U.S. District Court complaining that his termination was a violation of his right to free speech.