SYRACUSE, NY – A Syracuse firefighter with lifelong diabetes is suing after the city fired him for fear he’d put others in danger.
John Williams claims the city broke civil service law by forcing him off the job without explanation on Aug. 25, 2011. That was a day after Williams suffered from low blood sugar at an extinguished fire and removed himself from the action.
A doctor hired by the city later cited four “diabetes-related” incidents during Williams’ eight-year career. An arbitrator ruled that Williams had struggled to manage his diabetes in the past, but had gotten it under control enough that he should be returned to work.
The city decided Williams was too much of a risk. In a Sept. 30, 2013 letter to Williams, Fire Chief Paul Linnertz concluded that his “presence on the job represented a potential danger to persons or property or would severely interfere with Syracuse Fire Department operations.”
The two sides are due Tuesday to make arguments in state Supreme Court. Here’s an in-depth look at the lawsuit.
The firing raises questions about the balance between protecting fellow firefighters and the public in a dangerous profession and protecting an employee from being fired because of a disability.
A lawyer for the American Diabetes Association said Williams’ situation is not unlike a firefighter struggling with weight, smoking, high blood pressure, cancer, epilepsy or heart problems.
The difference? Diabetes is an unknown in the way that other common disabilities are not. And so the reaction is fear, said Kathy Butler, a diabetes association lawyer.
“We have to recognize that people are not robots,” said Butler, chair of the ADA’s legal advocacy group. “Perfection is a bad standard to meet for any individual.”
The city declined to comment on the case, citing the ongoing litigation.
Roughly three million Americans live with Williams’ type of diabetes, which stems from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin. Williams carries a pump that provides the needed insulin, but is vulnerable to low or high blood sugar, which must be regulated in relation to the insulin.
Also known as “juvenile diabetes,” Williams has lived with this disability since age 9. He divulged his medical history to the fire department when he was hired in 2004.
“We feel this is a bigger issue than John,” said Syracuse Firefighters Association President Paul Motondo. Like the diabetes lawyer, he wonders about another member struggling with a chronic disease. At what point can the city fire a worker?
“I tell my members: ‘This could be you,” Motondo said. “Anybody on civil service should be worried.”
The National Fire Protection Association believes diabetics are able to fight fires if they’ve controlled their diabetes for a year or more. Williams believes he had controlled his diabetes as firefighter – arguing he never had an episode that required help from another firefighter — but the city disagreed. The arbitrator ruled there was enough reason for concern to remove him in 2011.
However, the arbitrator ultimately ruled that Williams had controlled his diabetes better since being forced off the job, and should be brought back.
The fire union is paying for Williams’ lawsuit. The members also gave him money to help the unemployed firefighter cope as the fight waged on. “We’ve been doing everything physically possible to support our brother,” Motondo said.
The lawsuit not only rests on Williams’ firing, but how the city carried it out. Williams claims the government relied on three episodes that were never proven to be diabetes-related, failed to let him appeal their decision and eventually acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in finding he could not control his diabetes.
Williams said he’s looked for other jobs, but his medical history has scared others off.
“A company may not want to invest long-term in a walking medical case,” Williams said. “I can’t prove myself unless I can work for their company.”
A lifelong dream
Growing up in Syracuse, Williams wanted to join the Armed Forces, preferably, the Navy. But at age 9, he was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes.
He’d need an insulin pump his whole life. The military wasn’t an option for diabetics.
“I wanted to be in the brotherhood of service, so I decided to be a firefighter or policeman,” Williams said.
He played lots of sports in school, including football, basketball, soccer and lacrosse. He says that taught him to control his diabetes. After graduating Corcoran High School in 2000, he enrolled at the State University College at Buffalo.
But then tragedy struck: his father became ill with cancer and died after his sophomore year. Williams left school to be closer to his family. He took civil service tests and was offered a job as a Syracuse firefighter.
Williams said he had a conversation with the fire chiefs about his diabetes when he was hired. Court records show that the city doctor approved his hiring despite conflicting reports as to whether his diabetes was under control.
Four years later, on Jan. 26, 2008, Williams told a supervisor he wasn’t feeling well, said his lawyer, Nathaniel Lambright. As Williams left the airport’s fire station after work, he passed out and crashed his personal vehicle into the building.
After the crash, his blood sugar was checked at the emergency room and was OK, Williams said. But his doctor noted it didn’t appear he was checking his blood sugar often. Another doctor blamed the flu, but the city’s doctor disagreed, leaving the cause unknown. Williams was returned to work, but barred from driving a fire truck for a year.
In 2009, Williams became light-headed twice while on the job. On April 20, Williams was at the scene of an extinguished fire when he checked himself into the medical team. On June 10, he was driving a fire truck at the airport and suddenly felt hot and sweaty. He pulled over. Two minutes later, the symptoms were gone.
In both cases, tests showed Williams’ blood sugar was OK and he hadn’t tried to raise his levels before being checked, his lawyer said. He was allowed back to work the next day. The cause of those episodes remains unknown, though Williams again mentioned to his doctor frustration over his diabetes.
Williams pointed out that firefighters are routinely allowed to take breaks from fighting fires due to light-headedness, exhaustion, heat or other issues.
In the last episode, on Aug. 25 2011, Williams admitted he went to a fire scene without enough blood sugar. It was just after he had taken insulin, but hadn’t eaten yet. His sugar was low when the bell rang.
When he got to the fire scene, he helped put out the fire. But afterward, he felt light-headed and took himself out of service to drink juice. That time, his blood sugar tested low.
The next day, Williams was given a 10-minute evaluation by a city-appointed doctor. Then, he was told not to come back to work.
The diabetes lawyer, who reviewed the lawsuit, said it appeared the city had a “knee-jerk reaction,” considering officials did not seek diabetes intervention after the previous three episodes. Butler added that a short examination was “problematic” in concluding that Williams should be taken off the job.
When the case reached the arbitrator in 2013, Williams’ lawyer contends that the city unfairly focused on the times in which doctors felt Williams needed to do better, without considering the positive notes from the same doctors.
And Williams’ diabetes doctor — who had at times been critical of the firefighter’s efforts — determined that he was fit for duty.
The arbitrator, Ira Lobel, later concluded that none of the incidents were overly alarming by themselves, but put together, they were cause for concern. Nevertheless, the question was whether Williams was controlling his diabetes at that moment.
Therefore, Lobel ruled, the firefighter should be returned to work.
“Dragged through the mud”
Williams said he always kept a machine to check his blood sugar in the fire truck. He also had peanut butter crackers, juice and Kool-Aid for emergencies, he said.
“I have an extra responsibility to make sure it’s not my diabetes,” Williams said.
But the fire department claims he wasn’t doing enough. A few months after being taken out of work, Williams said the fire department offered him a deal: four months of pay and a letter of recommendation if he left the job for good.
Williams said no. And that’s when the dispute started getting personal, he said.
At the time, Williams was recently engaged and hoping to buy a house. Instead, he postponed the wedding plans and depended upon money from the fire union and relatives to survive.
When the fire union’s help ran out, Williams exhausted his unemployment benefits. He started house-hopping until his fiancee invited him to live with her. He lost his car to the bank.
“Life has been hell,” Williams said. “I feel like my life has been dragged through the mud.”
He eats less to conserve the costly insulin: the less he eats, the less insulin his body needs. “It’s sad that’s something I have to consider,” Williams said. “And a job with $10 an hour without health insurance doesn’t help.”
If bought without insurance, Williams would need hundreds of dollars of insulin a month.
He hit emotional rock-bottom last fall, when he went to Rite Aid to get more insulin – literally his lifeblood, without which, he could die.
But at the pharmacy, Williams realized he didn’t have the right paperwork and no money to pay for the expensive item. As the cashier delivered the bad news, Williams started crying.
The cashier, realizing the situation, offered to buy his insulin with a store gift card. That made Williams cry even more.
“She went out of her way to help me,” Williams said. “I’ve never needed someone to step up and do that before.”