When he achieved his dream of becoming a firefighter for the city of Brooklyn Park in 2013, Joseph Tiedeman quickly climbed the ladder within the department to become one of its youngest captains.

But after a bout with post-traumatic stress disorder sidelined the 27-year-old for months last year, he was fired. In a recently filed lawsuit, he alleges his termination amounts to discrimination for a disability protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

"I don't want a GoFundMe. I don't want a million dollars," he said. "I want the job I love doing in the community I've lived most of my life."

His attorney, Emma Denny, said the case highlights discrimination first responders face when seeking help. Rather than Brooklyn Park provide time and resources like they do for physical disability leave, she said employees on leave for mental health are fired.

"The stereotype … is that they're going to go out on this indefinite leave and never come back. And that's just not the case," said Denny, who is also representing a Brooklyn Park police detective who was terminated instead of being allowed to remain on leave for PTSD. "It's unfortunate that they've given so much to their departments but weren't given that same respect in return to give them the time they needed to heal and return full force."

Attorney Susan Tindal, who represents the city on behalf of Bloomington law firm Iverson Reuvers, provided a statement denying Tiedeman's allegations: "The City accommodated Mr. Tiedeman with a leave for 7½ months. Mr. Tiedeman was found not to be fit for duty as a Fire Captain with no definite timeline for a possible return. The City did not arrive at the decision to terminate Mr. Tiedeman's employment lightly, but an indefinite leave of absence was a hardship for the City."

Mitchell Hamline School of Law Prof. David Larson said departments need to explore and work toward recovery and rehabilitation — especially when considering the disproportionate rate of first responders diagnosed with PTSD and staffing shortages. Departments may see these discrimination lawsuits if they're not providing the same type of extended leave as they do for physical disabilities.

"We need to be sensitive to the fact that significant sacrifices have been made in these positions at a very real cost," he said.

Front-line trauma

Tiedeman went on leave after struggling with suicidal ideation on Sept. 11, 2021, and crashing his vehicle in a suicide attempt that October.

He was found unfit to return to work, but a doctor discovered in February that his symptoms decreased after treatment and he could return after another evaluation. In March, another evaluation again found he was unfit but that he should be re-evaluated in September. But the city terminated Tiedeman's employment in May.

"I'm not worth three months after the 10 years I put in there?" Tiedeman said. "You couldn't give me three months?"

Denny said she is filing an additional lawsuit this week in the termination of Brooklyn Park police detective Chris McNeill, who submitted a PTSD injury report as a result of investigating child pornography cases and compounded trauma from 19 years on the job.

"I tried to do it the right way. I got the PTSD diagnoses. I got an accepted worker's compensation claim, tried to do therapy while working," McNeill said in an interview. "And I just got to a point where I needed to take some time off."

McNeill said fire and police departments need to be supportive when first responders take PTSD leave, and there needs to be a road to return to work rather than be terminated.

"I think that's a detriment to a lot of other officers that might need help and are on the verge of looking for help," he said. "They don't want to lose their job. So of course they're going to keep it quiet."

Tindal, also representing Brooklyn Park in McNeill's lawsuit, responded: "The City of Brooklyn Park accommodated Mr. McNeill's requests for accommodations throughout his employment with the City. Fitness for duty examinations determined that Mr. McNeill was not fit for duty as a police officer. The City's actions in terminating Mr. McNeill's employment were lawful and the City denies any allegations of wrongdoing or violations of law."

McNeill, 48, is still going to therapy and spending time with his wife and three children where they live in Corcoran. He said he wants to return to work and retire with dignity, but the department hasn't offered reinstatement.

'Not like a physical injury'

In his 10-year career with the department, Tiedeman said he responded to 20 pediatric deaths. While in treatment, he heard stories of other firefighters that would "bring shivers up your spine," and how they tried to not bring that home.

Its widely known that firefighters face high rates of PTSD. A 2018 article by the Star Tribune took a deep dive into what is described as a "silent epidemic" for Minnesota's firefighters. The trauma they experience on the front lines is so severe and widespread that the state established in 2016 the Minnesota Firefighter Hotline to call when in crisis, which is what Tiedeman did on Sept. 11, 2021.

Around the time Tiedeman filed the lawsuit, Brooklyn Park Fire Chief T. John Cunningham was featured in a Sept. 11 story for the Vikings where he shared the importance of mental health.

"As President of Minnesota State Fire Chiefs and as a fire chief of one of the largest cities in the state, it's been my personal commitment to make sure that we provide the mental health resources to all of our firefighters."

Cunningham did not return calls or request for comment.

The department recently replaced Tiedeman, who is still employed with the St. Michael Fire Department and North Memorial Ambulance Service. They both allowed him to stay on leave.

Tiedeman, who lives in Otsego with his fiancée and their four children, said he has made strides with his mental health, but said it's different from taking medical leave for a broken arm.

"It's not like a physical injury," he said. "You can't see physical progress."