After five months of early settlement efforts failed, Goyette & Associates has now filed a federal lawsuit against the Fresno County Fire Protection District for the District’s termination of eight Paid-Call Firefighters (or “PCFs”) for – – believe it or not – – these firefighters’ refusal to sign a letter declaring their (alleged) legal status as “volunteers” to the District. The lawsuit contains causes of action for retaliatory dismissal, for suppression of free speech, and for associated claims for minimum wages and overtime pay.

Joseph P. Goodman, James B. Mason, Gregory Conley, Nicholas Russell, Cameron Donnahoo, William Sander III, Sergio Valdez and Terry Valdez were all PCFs who had worked hard for the District as part-time firefighters for between three and twenty-three years, responding to emergency calls as part of the PCF staff which supplements the full-time Cal-Fire firefighter staff serving the District. All were surprised when the District’s Fire Chief, Keith Larkin, issued a letter in February demanding that all PCFs sign an attached form – – the ‘Volunteer Status Form’. All were surprised that the letter threatened termination if it was not signed. All were even more surprised that the attached form was a ‘declaration’ stating that the signatory understood they were serving as a “Volunteer” to the District. They were surprised because the District had never in the past told PCFs they were volunteers, and had never treated PCFs as volunteers.

When these eight PCFs questioned their supervisors and other commanders within the District, including Chief Larkin, about the basis for this ‘alleged’ volunteer status, they were not provided any information, factual or legal, supporting the idea that PCFs were “volunteers”. After obtaining advice from legal counsel that the District PCFs did not appear to satisfy the ‘legal test’ for volunteers, based on the pay received and on the numerous ‘controls’ exercised by the District over the PCFs, and after having a Department of Labor (DOL) investigator tell them the same, these eight PCFs decided they could not sign a letter definitively stating that they “understood” they served as “Volunteers” to the District. Due to this good faith concern, the District terminated each of these individuals on April 26, 2012.

Each of these PCFs then appealed their terminations. On June 19, 2012, the District rejected the appeals and upheld the terminations.

Goyette & Associates’ lead wage and hour attorney Gary G. Goyette was extremely surprised by the District’s actions: “It’s hard to believe the District really took these steps against these dedicated firefighters. Not only do the facts show that District PCFs are employees instead of volunteers, but even if there was any debate on this classification, the demand to sign the declaratory letter, and the subsequent terminations have nothing to do with such debate. An employee’s (or volunteer’s) opinion or declaration as to whether they are (or are not) a ‘volunteer’ plays no part in the ‘legal test’ for volunteers. Individuals are allowed to ‘volunteer’ to public agencies only if they are not paid for their services above a ‘nominal fee’, and/or if the work is truly voluntary – – meaning they cannot be required to perform the services or follow mandates from the employer. The District’s decision to demand the Volunteer Status Form be signed, and their decision to terminate the eight PCFs who believed signing this declaration was dishonest served no purpose, and were entirely unnecessary. The fact that these acts are prohibited under the law is why we have sued the District, hopefully to get these eight firefighters reinstated to their part-time employment with the District.”

In the meantime Mr. Goodman, Mr. Mason, Mr. Conley, Mr. Russell, Mr. Donnahoo, Mr. Sander III, Mr. Valdez and Mrs.Valdez continue to deal with the emotional toll of going from hard-working, part-time firefighters for the District, serving the Fresno County residents, to individuals prohibited from such work, labeled in an adverse manner which has affected, and continues to affect both their careers and home lives going forward.

Complaint: Fresno Firefighters vs. Fresno County Fire Protection District