A former Graham firefighter, Robert (“Rob) Patterson, who was fired this spring, got an opportunity to clear his name during a special hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Lorrie Andrews, human resources for the city of Graham, outlined the purpose and parameters to a group of about 20 people who had gathered inside the Graham Civic Center for the hearing Wednesday afternoon.
Andrews told The Alamance News that such hearings are rare but are offered to public employees who believe they have been wrongly terminated.
In addition to Andrews, approximately six Graham city officials attended the hearing, including: Graham police chief Kristy Cole Baker; city manager Megan Garner and assistant city manager Aaron Holland; councilman Bobby Chin; and Katie Hartzog of Hartzog Law Group in Raleigh who said she’s representing the city for the matter.
In a makeshift aisle that had been set up on the opposite side of the civic center, approximately eight supporters – who included Graham fire captain Jason Cook – gathered around Patterson during the hearing.
The name-clearing hearing will not necessarily change the outcome of Patterson’s termination, but rather simply gave him the opportunity to respond to allegations that he believed to be false “which may released to the public that could be negative or stigmatizing,” Andrews told the audience.
Andrews added that Graham city officials would not be speaking during the hearing; nor would it change the outcome of Patterson’s termination.
Patterson said that, after 28-plus years of working for the city of Graham, he was unceremoniously fired in an email the night of May 17. He contended that he was fired in retaliation for whistleblower complaints that he and other had lodged against superior officers in the Graham fire department between November 2021 and August 2022.
“These complaints addressed concerns regarding…behaviors that included: harassment, [creation of] a hostile work environment, discrimination of more seasoned members, and conduct unbecoming of a Graham firefighter,” Patterson asserted in his opening remarks.
Patterson said some 20 members of the Graham volunteer fire department – including him – had filed complaints about those alleged behaviors, and more than half of those who complained are no longer employed with the fire department or have faced disciplinary action since, according to the lengthy account he outlined Wednesday afternoon. Four full-time personnel who signed a formal complaint have been terminated, Patterson said, adding that since 2019, more than 30 firefighters have “retired, retired early, resigned, or [got fired].”
Patterson’s account varied substantially from the city’s version of events outlined in his May 17 notice of termination, which Graham city manager Megan Garner provided late Wednesday in response to a public records request by The Alamance News.
The notice stated that on December 12, 2022, Patterson was placed on a yearlong probation as a result of “complaints made to the city that you were stalking and harassing private citizens,” which the letter stated had led to his suspension from five shifts, and his being warned that any disciplinary actions within the one-year period may lead to his termination.
Patterson contends that what he characterized as an unrelated, pending court case served as pretext for his firing from the fire department.
In late March, Courtney Wrenn of Burlington filed a complaint for a domestic violence protective order (DVPO) against Patterson for allegedly stalking her but dismissed that action when it originally went to court on May 8.
Wrenn has since re-filed a new complaint for a DVPO that includes a seven-page narrative in which she admits to having a yearlong extramarital affair with Patterson, whom she claims threatened to expose her affair before her husband found out and she ended it in October 2022, based on court files along with testimony given by her husband, Jacob Wrenn, during a brief court hearing in May.
“I have been falsely labeled a stalker and harasser by my employer, who took the word of a citizen [Courtney Wrenn] over the word of a [28-plus] year employee,” Patterson said Wednesday, alluding to the fact that Wrenn had stated in her second complaint for a DVPO that she had been notified by the city on May 17 that Patterson had been fired.
Patterson contended Wednesday that city officials violated his rights “by making my termination public knowledge before the completion of my appeals process.”
Patterson went on to outline more than two dozen ways in which he was retaliated against after complaining about his superior officers in the fire department. They included: violating his due process rights; giving him negative evaluations; giving favorable treatment to other firefighters who hadn’t complained; placing him on probation; using taxpayer funds to subject him to an estimated seven to 10 hours of “interviews which were hostile, threatening, bullying and intimidating”; and using taxpayer funds to hire an investigator to surveil him while he was off-duty.
“The investigator determined I had not been observed on the property of the aforementioned citizen’s [Wrenn] work, church, or residence,” Patterson said during the hearing. Moreover, he said Graham city officials had put him “through two separate scrutinizing investigations, both of which concerned personal matters and off-duty behavior.”
Moreover, he alleged that Graham city officials “punished me for what [they] determined was a relationship over the course of a year that was personal and did not directly involve the Graham fire department.
“It has also been established that [I] did not use any fire equipment to harass and stalk anyone involved in this case,” Patterson said, referring to the apparent findings from the city’s investigation. “It has also been established that no inappropriate actions related to this case occurred in the fire station.”
Patterson pointed out during his “name-clearing hearing” that Courtney Wrenn had dismissed her initial complaint for a DVPO on May 8. Several weeks later, she filed a second DVPO, along with a request for an emergency order, which was denied “because she failed to prove grounds for emergency relief,” Patterson said. Wrenn admitted in the narrative she filed with her second complaint that she’d had “no direct contact” from Patterson since October 2022, he pointed out Wednesday.
“I have had no contact for nine months with the individual my employer is claiming I have stalked and harassed, and I have not attempted to see or contact [her] since October of 2022, when I blocked her phone number and blocked her on social media platforms,” Patterson said.
According to Patterson’s account, he had a “pre-disciplinary conference” with city officials on May 12 to defend himself against three “determinations” the city had made to support its decision to fire him.
However, the notice of termination that he received via email the night of May 17 contained four determinations, which he described as “harassment of private citizens and was in fact the most stigmatizing of all the determinations…I was never given the opportunity to properly defend myself against it,” Patterson explained.
Patterson has since filed a complaint against the city with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for alleged discrimination and retaliation, and that remains pending, he said during his hearing Wednesday afternoon.
“You cannot place a dollar value on what these individuals and this entity [have] done to me, or taken from me,” Patterson concluded. “Much of the damage that has been done is irreparable…Working as a firefighter for the city of Graham may just be a job to some…But for me, a Graham native, this was not just a job. This career was my passion.”
Two audience members spoke in support of Patterson Wednesday. Aside from Andrews’ brief introductory remarks, no one spoke on the city’s behalf.
Graham fire captain Jason Cook said, “The problem today is leadership in the fire department. We need the leadership of guys like Rob. The experience that’s been lost in our fire department is tremendous…You can’t replace that with guys with three and four years’ experience a book that tells them how to fight a fire.”
Former Graham volunteer firefighter Andy Rumley (who previously served as chairman of the planning board) echoed many of the same charges against the leadership in the fire department.
“What that man [Patterson] is going through is because of a bad decision [in] hiring [and a] total lack of leadership,” Rumley said. “It’s a total lack of institutional control. …Something has to be fixed. It’s like cancer – you cut it out.”
Meanwhile, Patterson is scheduled to return to Alamance County civil court on August 7 for a hearing on the second complaint for a DVPO that Courtney Wrenn has filed.
See earlier coverage of the litigation and court hearings on the dispute between Robert Patterson and Courtney Wrenn:
Stalking case filed against Graham fireman: https://alamancenews.com/graham-fireman-accused-of-stalking/