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2nd former fireman files federal lawsuit against city, mgr., fire dept. superiors, alleging retaliation

A second federal lawsuit has been filed against the city of Graham, the city manager, and two high-ranking officials in the Graham fire department, alleging that they retaliated against veteran firemen who filed a federal whistleblower complaint in 2021 over what they claimed to be a new supervisor’s hostile treatment of subordinates, which the former firemen contend was intended to force older workers out of the department.

The latest lawsuit, filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina by former Graham fireman Robert J. Patterson, II, outlines many of the same allegations as another suit that was filed in federal court last month by longtime former Graham fireman Thomas Rumley.

Rob Patterson during a “name clearing” hearing held in July 2023 after he was fired by the city.

Both of the former Graham firemen are suing over alleged age discrimination, creation of a hostile work environment, and retaliatory termination that they attribute to their having been among 21 firefighters who  signed a whistleblower complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against captain Jason Moore in November 2021.

“Most of these individuals are no longer with the fire department due to retaliation,” Patterson alleges in his suit.  “They were disciplined and/or fired.  Some quit, retired early, were fired, or denied promotions.”

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In addition to the city itself, Patterson’s suit also lists as defendants: Moore; Graham fire chief Tommy Cole; and city manager Megan Garner.

The latest federal suit filed by Patterson describes Moore – who joined the Graham fire department in May 2020 and embarked on a pattern of hostile behavior and harassment designed to force seasoned workers out – as  having been under the age of 40 when he was hired and “younger than most of the tenured firemen.”

According to their subsequent federal suits, neither of the former firemen, Rumley and Patterson, was afforded the protections supposedly conferred under the U.S. Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, which prohibits retaliation against employees who report wrongdoing.

Instead, Rumley, 47, who’d worked for the city since November 1996 and joined the fire department in 2002, was fired in November 2022.

Patterson, 51, who’d also worked for the city since November 1996 and joined the fire department in 2003, was fired in May 2023.

“The complaint against Captain Moore included, among other things: demanding, demeaning, condescending and aggressive behavior towards firefighters; safety concerns around him, undermining firefighters during emergency calls; inappropriate behaviors towards EMS personnel, police, Alamance County Rescue, fire instructors…harassment of older, more seasoned workers; creating and enforcing rules that he doesn’t adhere to; disparate discipline of members based on age; and belittling employees in front of the team,” Patterson asserts in his suit.

Graham city officials conducted an internal investigation into the allegations against Moore that ended three months later with no adverse findings or disciplinary action against the fire captain, according to Patterson’s suit.

City officials also allegedly directed an investigator, identified in Patterson’s suit as Billy Clayton, to follow and surveil Patterson for months – to include while he was off-duty from the fire department – after it came to light that Patterson had been involved with a married woman, Courtney Wrenn of Burlington.

Patterson, then a fire equipment operator for the fire department, contends that he sent a second complaint about Moore to Graham fire chief Tommy Cole that led to a meeting in May 2022 between Patterson, Moore, and Cole, to discuss the issue.

Later the same month, Patterson and other members of the fire department sent a “complaint of no confidence” against Cole, the fire chief, the city of Graham’ the city ordered an investigation into the complaint “by a neutral third party” that lasted from May until August 2022, according to Patterson’s suit.

Wrenn later filed what Patterson contends to have been two false complaints for a domestic violence protective order, or DVPO, against him in the spring of 2023.  Both complaints were dismissed at two separate proceedings in Alamance County district court in May and August 2023.

Brad Allen, then- chief district court judge for Alamance County, dismissed the case in August 2023, citing among his extensive findings of fact that Wrenn had contacted Patterson approximately 54 times in the seven days between October 12 and October 19, 2022 – after she claimed to have ended the affair.

After Wrenn came clean about the affair with her husband, Patterson contends, the husband, Jacob Wrenn allegedly set out to do “everything in his power” to persuade the city to fire Patterson, according to his federal suit. Courtney Wrenn allegedly abetted her husband in this scheme, by contacting the city and accusing Patterson of stalking, harassment, and blackmail.

Those allegations resulted in another internal investigation by the city, “for an affair he had with Mrs. Wrenn that occurred while he was off duty,” and Patterson was suspended without pay for five shifts in December 2022, based on Wrenn’s “false allegations,” according to the former fireman’s federal suit.

Patterson contends he was placed on a second unpaid suspension for 12 days in December 2022, while the internal investigation into his affair was ongoing, and informed later the same month that his application had been rejected for a fire captain position (which would’ve been a promotion).  He was also placed on probation for a year by the city as a result of the allegedly false accusations by the Wrenns, according to his suit.

Moreover, Patterson contends that Cole emailed Courtney Wrenn about disciplinary decisions that the department had made regarding Patterson’s employment and “solicited additional information that could assist the city” in ultimately firing him from the fire department, the suit asserts.

The former firemen contends Cole and other city officials repeatedly  shared his confidential personnel information with his former paramour, Courtney Wrenn, in exchange for her providing the city with surveillance footage of Patterson and his new girlfriend “at various locations in their community over a period of several months,” according to his Patterson’s suit.

According to Patterson’s suit, Graham city manager Megan Garner called Courtney Wrenn in the spring of 2023 to meet with her, discuss Patterson, and get a copy of the DVPO complaint – that was ultimately dismissed by Allen as baseless, the lawsuit notes.   In April 2023, the city opened yet another internal investigation against Patterson at the request of Courtney Wrenn and her husband, Jacob Wrenn, which Patterson contends was a violation of his right of due process.

Moreover, the former fireman claims that Wrenn’s husband and the city’s investigator, Billy Clayton, “engaged in unlawful surveillance of Patterson while off duty.”  Later that same month, Patterson claims to have been grilled – which he describes as between seven to 10 combined hours of hostile interviews –  as part of the city’s internal investigation into his affair with Courtney Wrenn.

“This was accompanied by an attempt to coerce [Patterson] into a confession with threats of being arrested and the loss of employment,” his suit asserts.

In early April 2023, Wrenn attempted to press criminal charges against Patterson with the sheriff’s office, which reviewed the charges, found no probable cause, and declined to press charges.

Patterson nonetheless was terminated via email the evening of May 17, 2023, according to his suit.  He asserts that Graham city officials contacted Courtney Wrenn that same night to inform her that Patterson had been fired.

Earlier this year, Patterson filed a civil suit in Alamance County superior court against the Wrenn couple, whom he alleges defamed him personally and professionally; caused him to develop life-threatening health problems; and made false allegations to the city in order to get him fired.

The city later provided Patterson with a “name-clearing hearing” in July 2023, though officials told The Alamance News at the time that the hearing had no bearing on his employment status.

In his federal suit, Patterson contends he and other veteran Graham firefighters were ultimately replaced by younger employees – many whom he describes as being in their 20s.

Patterson is seeking punitive and compensatory damages against each of the defendants under eight alleged causes of action.  The alleged causes include: age discrimination; creation of a hostile work environment that he claims was designed to force him out of the fire department; retaliation by firing him under the guise of an affair with a married woman and her false allegations to the city.

By contrast, Patterson insists he’d been voted firefighter of the year in 2020 and received “great performance evaluations” prior to Moore’s arrival at the fire department in May 2020.  His suit notes,

“Moore complimented [Patterson] on being an excellent employee in 2020 and 2021…after Plaintiff participated in the investigations, Moore’s overall comments were related to [Patterson’s] age.”

Patterson is being represented for his suit by the Lemons Law Firm in Raleigh; the same firm is also representing Rumley for his suit against the city.

None of the Graham defendants had filed a response by press time.

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