Summit County Sheriff FitzSimons wins wrongful termination lawsuit; appeal to follow
FRISCO — A senior United States district judge ruled in favor of Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons in a wrongful termination case brought by a former detective at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office last month. The case is ongoing following the plaintiff’s decision to appeal the opinion.
In January 2018, former Detective Sgt. Jared Dennis filed a lawsuit against FitzSimons in U.S. District Court in Denver, claiming that his firing was discriminatory due to his alcoholism.
The lawsuit stems from a dispute in July 2016 between Dennis and his ex-wife, who filed charges against him in Park County that lead to an internal affairs investigation at the Sheriff’s Office. The charges eventually were dropped, but Dennis was placed on administrative leave during the investigation and was asked to call in daily to his commander, Lesley Mumford, according to court documents.
The night before his arraignment, he got drunk while staying with another deputy who drove him to the courthouse the following day. Dennis appeared for his hearing with a blood-alcohol level of 0.107, well about the legal driving limit, according to the lawsuit. Because of his inebriated state, the Park County Jail postponed the hearing until the next day.
Dennis, believing he was not required to contact Mumford until after the arraignment, took no further action that day. Mumford made the decision to fire Dennis, citing violations of the Sheriff’s Office’s policies prohibiting any behavior that discredits the office or the deputies themselves, consuming alcohol to a degree that it impairs on-duty performance and consuming alcohol within eight hours of going on shift.
According to the lawsuit, Dennis appealed the issue to Sheriff FitzSimons, who supported Mumford’s decision.
Dennis then filed a lawsuit seeking reinstatement to his position and compensation for back pay, including lost benefits. He claimed his termination was discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act — under which alcoholism is a protected disability — and that the office failed to accommodate his disability.
But last month, Senior U. S. District Court Judge Marcia Krieger disagreed, issuing a summary judgment in favor of FitzSimons. In the opinion, Krieger indicated an important distinction between termination for having a disability and disability-caused misconduct, noting “there is no dispute that (Summit County Sheriff’s Office’s) decision arose from his unsatisfactory conduct on the morning of July 28, not from his abstract status as an alcoholic.”
Dennis also argued that the Sheriff’s Office didn’t take similar disciplinary actions against other employees who used alcohol in close proximity to their duties, including the deputy who drank with him the night before his arraignment and drove him to the courthouse, and another deputy who admitted to drunken driving while off duty.
The court found the argument unconvincing.
The opinion reads that the “court cannot conclude that different discipline they received permits an inference that the (Summit County Sheriff’s Office) discriminated against Deputy Dennis because of his status as an alcoholic.”
Finally, the court dismissed Dennis’ claim that the office failed to accommodate his disability, noting that Dennis didn’t request any accommodation for his disability until after he was terminated.
“Having identified no reasonable accommodation that he requested and that Sheriff FitzSimons refused, the court finds that Deputy Dennis has failed to come forward with a prima facie case (sufficient to establish a fact or raise a presumption unless disproved) of failure to accommodate,” Krieger wrote in her opinion.
But earlier this month, Dennis filed a notice of appeal to the United State Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit through his attorney Ralph Lamar, who noted the case “is ripe for appeal.”
In a phone call with the Summit Daily on Friday, Lamar said he and Dennis chose to appeal the case because “the court didn’t properly consider whether there were comparators, or people who were similarly situated” to Dennis — referring to the off-duty deputy caught driving while inebriated, and the deputy who drove Dennis to his arraignment.
FitzSimons declined to comment on the matter, noting the lawsuit is ongoing.
Dennis is currently working as a detective at the Dillon Police Department. Kerstin Anderson, director of marketing and communication for Dillon, said Dennis was an employee in good standing with the town but declined to comment further.
Lamar noted that no further briefings or hearings have been scheduled on the case.
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