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Fire chief terminated for unauthorized truck purchase

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//January 11, 2022

Fire chief terminated for unauthorized truck purchase

Virginia Lawyers Weekly//January 11, 2022

Where a battalion fire chief alleged he was terminated because of his age, but the record showed he was fired after he made an unauthorized purchase of a “brush truck,” the county was awarded summary judgment.


Botetourt County hired Clay O’Neal Fitzgerald in 2007 as a member of the Department of Fire and EMS. In this suit, Fitzgerald alleges a claim for retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, or ADEA. Botetourt County has moved for summary judgment.


For purposes of this summary judgment motion, the court accepts that Fitzgerald has established a prima facie case that he engaged in protected activity with the 2017 grievance and was later terminated. The primary issue is whether the county had a legitimate non-retaliatory reason to terminate him.

The county argues that Fitzgerald’s “but for” cause for his termination was his role in procuring the a “brush truck” without proper authorization and contrary to county administrator Gary Larrowe’s direct order. The county’s policy is clear that the only people authorized to purchase items for the county are county administrators or individuals who receive explicit authorization by delegation of this authorization power.

Fitzgerald has not submitted any evidence that he was authorized to purchase a truck on behalf of the county. Fitzgerald contends that fire safety officer Jason Ferguson was involved by providing budgetary updates. Ferguson’s role is to maintain the county budget and to provide budgetary guidance, but he does not have the authority to authorize use of county funds under the purchasing policy. Ferguson was only included in the brush truck emails to comment on whether there were available funds. Thus, correspondence with Ferguson does not provide authorization.

Ferguson also argued that fire chief Matthew Britt initiated the process of purchasing the truck and that he moved forward with the purchase because “it never occurred to [him] that Britt would have executed a bid process for something without approval.” However, Britt’s last day as county fire chief was on or about Nov. 20, 2017. Therefore, any authority Britt had to approve the purchase (or to delegate to Fitzgerald) ceased upon his departure. At that time, no decision had been made to purchase a specific truck, and Fitzgerald could not have reasonably concluded that he could direct the use of county money to buy the truck after Britt’s resignation.

The court found that no reasonable jury can conclude that Fitzgerald was authorized to purchase the brush truck and that this was a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for Fitzgerald’s termination. The county satisfied its burden by presenting a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the termination, while Fitzgerald failed to satisfy his burden by providing evidence that the unauthorized purchase was a pretext.

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment granted.

Fitzgerald v. Botetourt County, Case No. 7:19-cv-00825, Dec. 22, 2021. WDVA at Roanoke (Ballou). VLW 021-3-553. 15 pp.

VLW 021-3-553

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