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Fireman claims Graham retaliated, fired him for complaining about hostile work environment

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A former longtime Graham fireman has filed a federal lawsuit over alleged retaliation, age discrimination, and wrongful termination by two high-ranking officials within the Graham fire department and city manager Megan Garner.

The former fireman, Thomas Rumley –who had worked for the city 26 years but was fired two years after a new captain joined the department – filed the lawsuit Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina.

Former Graham fireman Thomas Rumley

In addition to the city manager, Rumley’s suit also lists as defendants Graham fire chief Tommy Cole; fire captain Jason Moore; and the city of Graham.  Rumley is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, as well as recovery of his attorney’s fees and costs for filing the action.

In his suit, Rumley alleges that he had been subjected to a increasingly hostile workplace by Moore, who joined the fire department in May 2020, after he and 20 other members in the Graham fire department signed and filed a complaint against Moore with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in November 2021.

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“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 [other emergency personnel]; harassment of older, more seasoned workers; [and] disparate discipline of members based on age,” Rumley asserts in his suit.

Cole, the Graham fire chief, sent Rumley an email on November 18, 2021 in which Cole acknowledged that Rumley signed the complaint against Moore.

In early 2022, Moore apparently embarked on what the lawsuit describes as a pattern of attempting to pressure Rumley to leave the fire department, according to the suit.  On January 13, 2022, Moore allegedly questioned why Rumley had not assisted with putting a patient on a stretcher during a medical call, which Rumley attributed to “his back issues” and said had been handled effectively by other emergency personnel at the scene.

“Chief Cole joined the meeting, both officers questioned [Rumley] in a condescending manner and pressuring manner,” from which Rumley concluded had been intended to pressure him into saying he couldn’t handle his job duties.

Meanwhile, the investigation into Moore, prompted by the November 9, 2021 EEOC complaint, concluded on January 25, 2022 with no disciplinary action taken against the fire captain, according to Rumley’s suit.  None of the complainants were given any report about the city’s supposed investigation into Moore’s conduct, according to the former fireman’s suit.

The following month, Rumley took a medical leave of absence from work, “due to mental stress at the hands of Moore,” that ran for approximately five weeks, the complaint states.  Two months after he returned to work, on May 19, 2022, Rumley claims he “received a written warning for failure to complete daily duties.”

Four days later, on May 23, 2022, Rumley filed a complaint alleging that Cole and Moore had created a hostile work environment.  In that complaint, Rumley “explained that on May 19, 2022, Cole exhibited aggressive behavior by yelling at him and stating, ‘I’m tired of your attitude and don’t want to hear anything else about targeting,’” Rumley alleges in his suit.  “Chief Cole’s behavior was a clear indication of his retaliation against [Rumley] for his participation in the complaints against Moore,” the suit asserts, adding that Moore also had cursed and berated him and another employee that same day, on May 19, 2022.

 

Another complaint quickly disposed

Members of the Graham fire department subsequently filed “a formal complaint of No Confidence” against Cole and Moore with the city’s human resources department, which “disposed” of the complaint less than two weeks later, saying no evidence of any policy violation had been found.

The clashes with Moore and Cole continued to ramp up, with Cole criticizing Rumley’s “tone on how he responded over radio traffic” that the fire chief deemed to be “condescending” in mid-June 2022.

Rumley claims in his suit that, later that same month, he was forced to sign the job performance evaluation – which Moore had conducted in November 2021, soon after Rumley and  20 other firefighters filed the EEOC complaint – which he contends he disagreed with in order to take his accumulated vacation time.

The following month, on July 28, 2022, Rumley claims he received a “final written warning” for not completing online training, which he insists in his suit was due to his having been out on medical leave and ongoing psychological distress that he contends Cole and Moore created after he returned from leave.

“In response to the final written warning,” Rumley contends, “[he] submitted documentation to the city of other employees that had not completed training requirements and had not been written up.”

As an example of the alleged favorable treatment of younger, less qualified firefighters – and discrimination toward older ones – Rumley points to John Perez, who’s described as an employee in his 20s and had been cleared by Moore to drive fire trucks despite not having completed the required training. “Capt. Moore forged the paperwork for [Perez’s] clearance,” Rumley alleges in his suit.

Meanwhile, Moore would not permit William Perry – then another Graham fire department employee in his 60s with “over 30 years of driving experience” – to drive fire department vehicles “allegedly due to incomplete training requirements,” Rumley contends.

On October 31, 2022, Cole then directed Rumley to complete a physical exam, but then terminated him eight days later, on November 8.

Rumley is seeking damages under multiple alleged causes, including: wrongful termination on the basis of his age and for having filed a complaint against Moore; violation of state labor laws, including alleged failure to give him his accumulated vacation time, or payment in lieu of it; and lost wages and retirement.  In addition to punitive damages, Rumley is also requesting an award for back pay he claims he is due as a result of the wrongful termination.

According to his suit, Rumley had worked for the city of Graham since November 1996 and joined the fire department in April 2002.

Another fireman claims to have been terminated for complaining

Rumley is the second former Graham fireman to allege that he was wrongfully terminated for filing a complaint about Moore.

In July 2023, during a “name-clearing hearing” that the city provided, former Graham fireman Robert (“Rob”) Patterson, II, also claimed that he had been fired in retaliation for whistleblower complaints that he and others had lodged against superior officers in the Graham fire department between November 2021 and August 2022.

Patterson, who’d worked nearly 30 years for the city of Graham, has since confirmed for The Alamance News that he has not been reinstated in the fire department.

Rumley is being represented for his suit by the Lemons Law Firm in Raleigh.

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

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