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Injured firefighter sues employer

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Richard Maass, an injured firefighter who holds a tenuous position with the Spring Hill Fire and Rescue District, has filed a discrimination complaint against the district.

"You can only get pushed so many times," Maass, 33, said Wednesday. "It's just not fair that you get injured on the job and your whole career's washed up. It's just not right."

Maass left active duty last year after injuring his knee jumping from a fire engine. He since has asked the district to pay for additional training so he could work as a fire inspector should a position become available.

Chief Don Patterson refused, so Maass on June 15 lodged his complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The firefighter alleges that Patterson violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The act in part calls for employers to make reasonable efforts to place disabled employees in other positions.

Maass' position has been preserved within the district, but doctors have said chances are slight that he will ever be able to work again as a firefighter. Wednesday, he noted, dismal weather seemed to cause him pain.

"It tears me up," he said. "I get my good days. I get my bad days, though. I hope it's not going to be like this for the rest of my life. Put yourself in my boots. This is no g-- d--- picnic. It's not a vacation here."

Maass, a Spring Hill firefighter and paramedic since March 1980, was injured late last year. In November, he asked Patterson to send him to Florida Fire College in Ocala for 12 weeks of classes for fire inspection.

In the EEOC complaint, Maass alleges Patterson denied his request because "(Maass) was of no value" to the district. The chief told Maass he didn't want to set a precedent by training an employee on injury leave.

Maass told the EEOC that another firefighter, Dana Panazzo, hurt her back a few years ago. She was retrained, he said, and a fire inspector's position was created for Panazzo, whose husband is former Spring Hill Fire Commissioner Gene Panazzo.

Chief Patterson countered that Panazzo paid her way through the fire-inspection course, which costs $50 plus expenses for hotel and food. He said the inspector position she filled was one that already had existed and had become available.

"Dana went to school on her own," Patterson said. "The district didn't have anything to do with that. The problem is that once you allow one person to do it and the district pays for it, you're obligated to pay for the next one."

Chip High, the attorney who represents the fire district, drafted a response to the EEOC complaint.

In that response, the district denies "it has discriminated against Richard E. Maass for any reason and specifically because of any disability." It also indicates that the department does not have an available "light-duty" position.

Surprised fire commissioners first learned about the complaint at their meeting Wednesday. Patterson received the complaint Friday and immediately informed High. Neither told commissioners.

"If a lawsuit isn't important enough to tell the commission about, I don't know what is," Commissioner Roy Jensen said.

"That's been one of my high points to Chief Patterson," Commissioner George Spina said. "I'd like to know what's going on in the fire district."

Commissioner Frank Colletti agreed: "We should do whatever we have to do to improve communication. . . . It would not have cost a nickel to let us know. It's worth a phone call. We just have to be able to get this information out and around."

The commissioners asked that they be notified whenever any legal problems arise.

"Honestly, at what point in time do I notify commissioners?" Patterson said after the meeting. "No disrespect to the commissioners, but if they want to hear when anything comes up, we could be sitting here calling up on everything."