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Veteran Mo. FF files disability discrimination lawsuit

Central County Fire and Rescue Firefighter David Horning was fired two years before his retirement while he was pursuing a light-duty assignment


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By Erin Heffernan
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

ST. PETERS, Mo. — A longtime firefighter is suing Central County Fire and Rescue, claiming he was illegally fired last year because of his age and a work-related disability.

The suit was filed Nov. 22 on behalf of David Horning, 54, of unincorporated St. Charles County, who spent more than 22 years as a Central County firefighter until the district’s board voted to terminate him in November 2022 after he’d spent two years on disability leave, according to the suit.

The suit claims the firing violated the Missouri Human Rights Act by discriminating against Horning’s age and disability.

Horning’s attorney, Nathan Cohen, said Horning was two years from retirement when the district led him go. Horning had repeatedly offered to return to work on “light duty,” meaning a less physically demanding assignment, but the district told him it suspended its light duty policy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cohen said.

“This man really loved being a firefighter,” Cohen said Tuesday. “He loved being a part of the community. ... He’s now had to sue to redress the very reduced benefits he’s left with today.”

Horning was hired when the district was formed in 1999. District salary records show he earned about $99,000 in total pay as a management-level firefighter in 2021, his last full year on the job.

Horning first went on disability leave in the fall 2020 for a work-related knee injury and, around the same time, was recovering from stage-three colon cancer, his suit claims. Multiple delays in a knee replacement surgery caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent health complications meant that Horning was not able to return to full duty for the next two years.

The firefighter union’s bargaining agreement stated that after two years on disability, an employee must supply a doctor’s note estimating a date of return, according to the suit.

The suit claims Horning submitted a note showing he was attempting to schedule another surgery, so didn’t have an exact date of return, when the board met on Nov. 2, 2022.

Horning asked to speak to the board by email, but, the suit says, a union representative told him he wouldn’t be allowed in the meeting after Horning heard “shouting and cursing” by the board’s chair Dave Tilley.

The district voted at that meeting to terminate Horning, according to the suit.

The suit claims Horning’s younger replacement was hired the same day as Horning’s termination. The board told Horning he was fired for failure to provide a date of return in line with the union contract.

“This reason for discharge was a false narrative,” the lawsuit states, “a pretext created by defendants to justify unlawful discriminatory behavior.”

Horning also accuses the district of a history of “bending rules for family members (nepotism) and friends of members in authority.”

The district, Tilley and Fire Chief Gary Donovan are named as defendants in the suit.

Donovan said Monday that the district cannot comment on ongoing litigation.

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