WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear a Baltimore County firefighter’s claim that the fire department chief threatened to kill the man’s search and rescue dog if he did not admit to a charge of insubordination.
Firefighter William J. Gilbert said he was “under duress” because of the perceived threat to the dog, Mattie, when he signed an agreement with the Baltimore County fire department to settle a charge of insubordination.
Gilbert had asked the high court to decide whether a district court judge wrongly granted summary judgment in the case or if the judge should have deferred to a jury. The court declined, without comment, to hear his appeal.
The case stemmed from a dispute between Gilbert and his supervisor, John Hohman, who last year became Baltimore County fire chief.
Gilbert’s attorney, Jack Gohn, said the chief harbored bad feelings “due to some comments Gilbert had made against Hohman during. . .a union election some years ago.”
But Hohman’s attorney, James J. Nolan Jr. of the Baltimore County civil law office, said the charges of bad feelings and of Hohman being “on a vendetta” were raised by Gilbert only after the fact. He also “vehemently denied any threat was ever made on the dog’s life.”
“Mr. Hohman did not even have the authority to do that because the dog was county property,” Nolan said.
In court papers, Gilbert claimed Hohman “caused trumped-up disciplinary charges to be brought” against him and then tried to get Gilbert to agree to a settlement by threatening to “put down” Mattie, to whom he had become attached.
The insubordination charge stemmed from an investigation by Hohman into an unrelated union-management dispute. When Gilbert refused to answer inquiry questions posed by Hohman, he was charged with insubordination and suspended Feb. 10, 1997.
Court papers said Hohman recommended that Gilbert fired, pending a formal proceeding. But on Feb. 24, 1997, Gilbert agreed to a settlement in which he was demoted and transferred from the search and rescue team, but given ownership of Mattie.
Gohn said Gilbert agreed because Hohman told him Mattie would be “useless” to the department if the dog would not search properly for another handler. He said Hohman was essentially “confronting Mr. Gilbert with a dilemma: accept the `settlement’ or see his beloved search dog Mattie killed.”
Gilbert filed suit in district court, claiming violation of his rights to free speech, due process and equal protection.
U.S. District Judge Frederic N. Smalkin dismissed the case last March, ruling that “no reasonable factfinder could conclude, were the case at the directed verdict stage, that Gilbert’s mind was overwhelmed by fear which precluded him from using free will or judgment.”
The ruling was upheld in September by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which said that even if the “improper threat” was made, it does not constitute duress because the settlement he agreed to represented a “reasonable alternative.”
Nolan said the fact that both lower courts dismissed the case showed that Gohn “didn’t have a leg to stand on” in his Supreme Court appeal.
“He did not raise any of the specific legal issues decided by either the district court or the court of appeals,” Nolan said. “That’s why he fell back on raising a generic attack on the standards of summary judgment as applied in all the federal courts throughout the United States.”
But Gohn argued that the high court has sent mixed signals on whether or not judges should issue summary judgments when material facts are in dispute. He said his client believes it should be up to a jury and not a judge to determine if someone is “under duress.”
“The district court in effect said Mr. Gilbert’s position could not have been believed by any reasonable jury because the judge thought, I guess, it was absurd,” Gohn said. “We have a situation where Mr. Gilbert says you (the judge) may think it is unlikely, but I have a right to have a jury determine if I am right or wrong.”