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Former firefighter reaches settlement in Forsyth County ADA violation lawsuit

A settlement has been finalized in the lawsuit of a former Forsyth County firefighter who alleged in 2018 that Forsyth County violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it denied his request to return from a medical leave for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment.

On Oct. 10, attorneys finalized a $250,000 settlement in the lawsuit Timothy Smallwood v. Forsyth County, filing a joint dismissal in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. 

According to the lawsuit’s original complaint, in March of 2017, Smallwood, a 15-year veteran of the Forsyth County Fire Department was recommended by his doctor to take a leave of absence for “in-depth” treatment for PTSD, which he had been diagnosed with in 2012.

Smallwood took 12 weeks of medical leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and was later granted additional time under the County Medical Leave policy in order to get clearance from his doctor to return to work, according to the complaint.

Even though the additional leave was granted, the complaint states that Smallwood’s employment with the county was terminated on June 15, 2017.

“On July 17, 2017, the county denied plaintiff’s ‘Request to Return from Medical Leave of Absence,’ stating within the denial that, ‘Fire Apparatus Operator is one of the most safety sensitive positions within the fire department.’”

The complaint also alleges that on July 19, 2017, Smallwood was verbally told by Director of Human Resources Pat Carson that “his request to return to work was denied because of his PTSD and because the county deemed him to be a safety risk.”

The complaint concluded that Forsyth County violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by terminating Smallwood.

In an answer to the complaint, Forsyth County denied any wrongdoing on the county’s part in Smallwood’s termination, stating that among other things, “Forsyth County’s actions were required by a business necessity” and denying that Smallwood had “a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

On Tuesday, attorney J. Daniel Cole of Parks Chesin & Walbert, who represented Smallwood in the suit, told the Forsyth County News that they had no comment beyond that, “any and all disputes between the parties have been resolved to their mutual satisfaction.”   

The lawsuit’s settlement agreement states that the $250,000 will be paid through the county’s insurer, Association County Commissioners of Georgia.

Forsyth County recently expanded the counseling services that are offered to first responders who experience traumatic events or suffer from disorders such as PTSD.  

In June, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners authorized a $16,400 agreement with One Source Counseling to provide multiple new services, including a 24-hour help line, a new support team and additional oversight, which reportedly went into effect in early July.

Following that approval, Forsyth County Fire Chief Barry Head told the FCN that the department realized there was more to be done above the department’s current services after officials read the Forsyth County News’s series “The Weight of Responding,” which spoke with a number of current and former firefighters about their experience and their struggles with PTSD symptoms.

“After the series that Forsyth County News did, it opened our eyes to the fact that we probably should be doing a little more for our employees, and a couple of comments those employees or former employees made really kind of shook us to the core,” Head said. “One of those was that they didn’t feel like the current service that we provide is quite adequate. That’s what this corrects.”