Houston v. Twp. of Randolph, Civ. No. 2:11-4810 (KM)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtKEVIN MCNULTY
PartiesTODD M. HOUSTON Plaintiff, v. TOWNSHIP OF RANDOLPH, et al., Defendants.
Decision Date21 March 2013
Docket NumberCiv. No. 2:11-4810 (KM)

TODD M. HOUSTON Plaintiff,
TOWNSHIP OF RANDOLPH, et al., Defendants.

Civ. No. 2:11-4810 (KM)


Dated: March 21, 2013



Todd M. Houston, a disabled volunteer firefighter, brings this action against the Township of Randolph, the Township of Randolph Volunteer Fire Department ("RVFD" or the "Department"), and RVFD's Chief, John McAndrew ("Chief McAndrew"). Houston alleges violations of his Free Speech, Due Process, and Equal Protection rights, the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act ("CEPA"), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (the "ADA"). He also alleges conspiracy to deprive him of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1985, and neglect or refusal to prevent the § 1985 conspiracy pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1986. All of these causes of action seek damages. This matter comes before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56, Fed. R. Civ. P.

Because Houston alleges claims under the United States Constitution and federal statutes, jurisdiction is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 and § 1343(a). Supplemental jurisdiction over his state constitutional and statutory claims is permissible pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a), because they are so related to his federal claims as to form part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the United States Constitution. Venue in this District is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1391 because the events underlying Houston's claims occurred in New Jersey. This matter is decided without oral argument, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 78.

Citing policy disagreements with RVFD relating to the deployment of the Rapid Intervention Crew ("RIC"), Houston wrote a letter to Chief McAndrew in

Page 2

which he stepped down as a trainer for the RIC. Chief McAndrew responded by accepting Houston's resignation, stating that Houston should no longer conduct any training sessions, and suggesting that Houston take a break from the RVFD. Houston, however, remained a member of the Department. Houston now contends that this was not an acceptance of his resignation, but a "pretextual suspension" in retaliation for his speaking out about what he viewed as RVFD's violation of its own policies. In addition, Houston believes that, by prohibiting him from participating in training sessions, RVFD is illegally refusing to make a reasonable accommodation to his physical disability. Houston also alleges that RVFD withheld certain participation incentive payments as retaliation for his voicing disagreement with RVFD's policies.

One factual weakness common to Houston's retaliation claims is that, as a result of his disagreement with Chief McAndrew over RIC policies, Houston resigned as a RIC trainer. Chief McAndrew did no more than accept Houston's resignation when he prohibited Houston from participating in any further training sessions. True, McAndrew suggested a cooling-off period. Houston, however, was not expelled from the RVFD; he remained a member of the Department. He continued to qualify for LOSAP points and any other benefits. In addition, Houston also received all of the incentive payments to which he was entitled, and he did not properly appeal the denials of which he now complains.

Factual weaknesses aside, Houston's claims are seriously flawed as a matter of law, for the reasons stated herein. I find that McAndrew's response to Houston's resignation letter did not violate Houston's constitutional or statutory rights. Defendants' motion for summary judgment is granted.


Most of the essential facts underlying this suit are not disputed, even under a liberal interpretation of the procedural rules governing summary judgment.1

Page 3

A. The Randolph Volunteer Fire Department and the RIC

RVFD is a fully volunteer fire department consisting of four companies, each of which is led by a Battalion Chief. (John McAndrew Aff. ¶¶ 2-3 [ECF No. 32-2]). The Department as a whole is overseen by a Chief and Deputy Chief. (Id. at ¶ 4). Since 2011, John McAndrew has served as the Chief of the RVFD. (Id. at¶ 1).

A Rapid Intervention Crew, or RIC, is a group of firefighters that reports to a structural fire to assist and rescue firefighters who become lost, injured, or trapped. (Id. at ¶ 5). RVFD set up a RIC, sometimes also called a Rapid Intervention Team ("RIT") or Firefighter Assist and Search Team, in either 1986 or 1996.2

The RIC does not confine its activities to the Township of Randolph, but also responds to fires in other jurisdictions in Morris County. (John McAndrew Dep. at 59:8-12, Ex. J to Harrison Aff. [ECF No. 32-8]). The fire scene's Incident Commander (the "IC") in the Authority Having Jurisdiction (the "AHJ") will contact a neighboring department, such as RVFD, via an electronic page seeking available RIC members. (John McAndrew Aff. ¶ 23). Once the chief of the responding department ascertains the number of available RIC-trained firefighters, he lets the IC know what resources are available. (Id. ¶ 24). The IC will then decide whether to summon the RIC members or to keep them on standby. (Id. ¶ 25).

Page 4

A RIC may deploy to the fire scene as a whole team - that is, all of the RIC members, who come from the same fire department, may assemble at the firehouse, and only then go to the fire scene. Alternatively, partial RIC units from different departments may combine at the fire scene to form a RIC. (Id. 53). The former, whole-team method, in Houston's estimation, prioritizes the safety of the RIC members because they have trained together and have experience working together. The latter, partial-team method prioritizes speed by dispatching RIC members to the fire as soon as they are available.3 (Houston Dep. at 109:7-109:23, 114:6-116:8; John McAndrew Aff. ¶¶ 53-54). The practice of Morris County fire departments has been to defer to the judgment of the IC about which method to follow. (Id. ¶¶ 49-51). The Morris County RIC Best Practices Guidelines (the "Guidelines"), which RVFD adopted in February 2011, do not require that a RIC be composed of firefighters from the same department. [Ex. C to Harrison Aff. [ECF No. 32-71; John McAndrew Aff. ¶ 21). In any case, the Guidelines contain an "Important Notice" that "[a]nyone using this document should rely on his or her own independent judgment or, as appropriate, seek advice." (Guidelines at 2).

B. Houston's Work as a Firefighter

Houston originally served as a full-time firefighter for North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue. On that job, he was injured, and his foot is now fused at a 90 degree angle. (Houston Dep. 9:6-11, 59:1-62:4, Ex. I to Harrison Aff. [ECF Nos. 32-7, 32-8]). He retired from North Hudson with a permanent disability. (Id.).

Around March 2001, Houston began to volunteer for the RVFD. (Id. at 15:18-16:6). He is a member of Company #2. (July 12, 2011 Letter from John McAndrew to Ted Carman, Ex. G to Harrison Aff. [ECF No. 32-7]). Houston's Battalion Chief since 2010 has been Ted Carman. (Houston Dep. at 97:18-22).

As a volunteer, Houston does not receive wages, expense accounts, health benefits, disability benefits, or any other standard compensation or benefits. (Final Pretrial Order at 6 [ECF No. 34]). If he participates in a certain number of activities, he is eligible to receive modest incentive payments, described in Section I.C, infra. He has stated that he is also eligible for free family memberships in the local YMCA and tuition assistance for certain classes at a community college. (Id. at 6-7).

Page 5

Houston and RVFD's then-Chief, William Wagner, reached an agreement as to what Houston's role would be in the RVFD in light of the limitations imposed by his injury. (Houston-RVFD Agreement, Ex. B to Harrison Aff. [ECF No. 32-7]). Their agreement, although dated May 10, 2010, indicates that the terms had been worked out earlier that year. (Id.). It provides that Houston would remain as RIC Team Captain;4 in this role, he would train firefighters and otherwise administer the RIC. (Id.). He would also respond to RIC calls when possible, reporting at the scene to the Incident Command Post and acting as liaison to the Department's RIC. (Id.). Because Houston could no longer drive RVFD vehicles or work as an active interior firefighter, he could not go into the "hot zone." (Id.). The agreement provides that it is to be reviewed annually. (Id.).

C. The LOSAP Program

The Emergency Services Volunteer Length of Service Award Program Act, which established the Length of Service Award Program ("LOSAP"), became effective in 1998. (Ex. M to Harrison Aff. at 1 [ECF No. 32-9]). LOSAP is a voluntary, municipally-funded, deferred-compensation program for volunteer emergency services personnel. (Id.; Thomas McAndrew Aff. ¶¶2, 15 [ECF No. 32-3]). A sponsoring agency, such as RVFD, establishes the local LOSAP and sets the yearly eligibility requirements. (Ex. M to Harrison Aff. at 1 [ECF No. 32-5]).

In the RVFD, to be eligible for LOSAP benefits in a particular year, the firefighter must amass a certain number of LOSAP Points, comprising Activity Points and Length of Service Points. (Thomas McAndrew Aff. ¶ 4 [ECF No. 32-3]). Participants earn Activity Points by, for example, attending meetings and training sessions, serving in leadership roles, or sitting on committees.5 (Id. 6; Ex. O to the Harrison Aff....

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT