Former Knightdale firefighter sues town over ‘unlawful’ termination tied to COVID shot mandate

Town of Knightdale fire truck. File

RALEIGH — A former firefighter is suing the Town of Knightdale over the town refusing his religious exemption to the town’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for its workers and then firing him for refusing the shot. 

Tyrone Lumley, a trained professional firefighter, worked for the Knightdale Fire Department from 2020 through December 2021 when he was forced off the job by the town. Lumley’s rank at the time was that of lieutenant. 

The civil action lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina on Nov. 17 on behalf of Lumley by Thomas Moore Society attorneys Stephen M. Crampton of Tupelo, Mississippi, and B. Tyler Brooks of Greensboro. 

Lumley had filed charges in a timely manner with the EEOC, which in turn issued a right-to-sue letter to Lumley and his attorneys. 

The 26-page lawsuit asserts Lumley is a “Christian with sincerely held religious beliefs that prevent him from receiving any of the available COVID-19 vaccines.” Allegations include the Town of Knightdale had “wrongfully denied Mr. Lumley’s request for a religious accommodation,” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that his subsequent termination was therefore “unlawful.” 

The lawsuit also says the town discriminated against Lumley for failing to get vaccinated while relying on ”unvaccinated first responders from neighboring jurisdictions, and those first responders were unvaccinated for secular reasons, including medical reasons and personal preference.” 

“I think this is a particularly compelling case because the Town not only had an inflexible mandate, granting no exemptions whatsoever, but it also made that decision after forcing employees who wanted an exemption to go through a burdensome application process that proved to be a sham,” Brooks told North State Journal in an email.  

The lawsuit underscores a lengthy and invasive religious accommodation process, which the complaint said the town used as a “tool to dissuade employees from the exercise of their civil rights.” 

“The requirements to even apply for a religious accommodation went further than anything I’ve ever seen prior to COVID,” Brooks continued. “And violated what had been considered settled law — such as, by seeking third-party confirmation of the applicant’s beliefs (viz., a pastoral reference), when the EEOC had been clear for years that such documentation could not be required.” 

Additionally, the lawsuit alleges Lumley’s First and Fourteenth Constitutional amendment rights were violated, as well as the town violating the North Carolina Constitution and a state law barring COVID-19 vaccine mandates for state workers contained under Session Law 2023-134; the most recent state budget. 

“The suit is also a useful reminder for North Carolina governmental employers that the state constitution is highly protective of religious liberty,” wrote Brooks. “Even if a municipal employer does satisfy its obligations under Title VII, the state constitution is likely going to require more.”  

The town’s manager, Bill Summers, was a key figure in the denial of Lumley’s request and he took a “no exemptions approach” when it came to the vaccine mandate, per the lawsuit. Notably, Lumley had submitted proof of a prior COVID infection implying natural immunity along with his accommodation request which was apparently ignored by Summers and the town. 

“The town manager (Bill Summers) was personally involved in and ratified and approved the denial of Mr. Lumley’s accommodation request as an official act of the town,” the lawsuit states. 

Following rejection of his religious accommodation request, Lumley was notified he was being placed “on leave immediately” and informed him he had until Dec. 14, 2021, to get the shot or be fired the same day. Lumley decided to resign on that date, “under duress,” because the town said it would not pay out accrued vacation time and that employees who did not comply would be ineligible for rehire. 

Despite Lumley’s resignation attempt, the lawsuit states, “In a subsequent letter, the town itself confirmed that it considered Mr. Lumley to have been terminated.” 

“It’d be one thing for a small, private employer to be unclear on the law, but this is a municipal entity with legal counsel readily available, and it still apparently thought it could do whatever it wanted,” Brooks wrote. “I look forward to taking discovery to understand how the Town’s internal processes could have fallen apart so badly.” 

Lumley, through his attorneys, is seeking various forms of relief from the court, including compensatory damages, back pay, front pay, court costs, and attorney fees.   

A permanent injunction on the town to remove derogatory or false information related to the matter from Lumley’s personnel files and requiring the town to conduct training for supervisors and managers on Title VII and related employment laws are also being sought as part of the relief requests. 

North State Journal reached out to Knightdale’s mayor and town council for comment on the lawsuit but has not received a response.