Florida Fire Chief Not Entitled To Notice Before Termination

William Amador was the Fire Chief for the Town of Palm Beach in Florida. As Fire Chief, Amador was a part of the Town’s management team involved in negotiations with the firefighters’ union concerning the Town’s pension plans.

Evidence came to the attention of Town Manager Peter Elwell that Amador had been feeding confidential information to the Union and that he had participated in the creation and maintenance of a website, www.palmbeachpensions.com, supporting the Union’s position. Amador denied any wrongdoing. Believing that Amador had deceived the town, Elwell decided to fire Amador and explained in a memorandum that Amador’s release was due to his involvement with the website and his alleged sharing of confidential information. The termination occurred without notice, a hearing, or an interrogation, and the firing was solely Elwell’s decision. The Town offered Amador a post-termination hearing to clear his name, but Amador refused.

Nothing in the Town’s ordinances required a hearing before Amador’s termination, and Amador admitted in a deposition that he understood himself to be an “at-will” employee. Under the Town’s ordinances, the Fire Chief serves at the pleasure of the Town Manager and may be removed for the “good of the Town.”

Amador sued the Town, claiming that under Florida’s statutory Firefighters’ Bill of Rights, he could not be fired without notice and a hearing. The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and rejected Amador’s lawsuit.

The case turned on a provision in the Bill of Rights that lays out ground rules for “interrogations.” The Court found that nothing in the Bill of Rights actually required an investigation prior to discipline; rather, the Bill of Rights simply laid out the procedures that would have to be followed in the event the employer conducted an investigation:

“There is nothing in the statute that requires supervisors to conduct a formal investigation before termination. A plain reading of the phrase ‘whenever a firefighter is subjected to interrogation’ strongly suggests that the Legislature intended to provide firefighters with certain rights only if and when they are made the subject of an interrogation. Neither does any other provision of the statute require that firefighters receive pre-termination notice. Rather, the notice provisions can only be found in connection with interrogation.

“This statutory structure is different from that of the ‘Policemen’s Bill of Rights’ (PBR). Under the PBR, the rights of law enforcement officers under investigation are roughly analogous to the firefighter rights, but a separate section of the PBR specifically references ‘notice of disciplinary action’ and makes clear that no punitive action can be taken against a police officer without notice. The FBR does not contain a similar notice section. Where the Legislature has chosen to use a term in one section of a statute but omitted it in another, courts should not imply the term where it has been excluded.”

Amador v. Town of Palm Beach, 2013 WL 1748939 (11th Cir. 2013).