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Goldstein v Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Co.

1)What were the facts in this case?

2)What were the issues?
3)What was the holding or ruling of the court?
4)What was the rationale?
5)Do you agree or disagree with the court’s decision? Why or why not? Defend your answer with evidence.
6)Give an example of an emergency situation to which you might respond and in which this court decision might be cited if a citizen were to file a lawsuit.

Goldstein v Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Co.

Citation: Goldstein v Chestnut Ridge Volunteer Fire Co. 25 F.3d 1039


The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant, Chestnut, a volunteer fire department for violating his constitutional rights following the fire department’s refusal to give him membership in the department majorly on grounds of his Judaic religious background. The defendant filed a motion for dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on ground that the fire department was not a state actor. The District court considered the issue and dismissed Chestnut’s motion on ground that since the defendant fire department was a state actor, then it was potentially liable in accordance with Section 1989.

After the District Court ruled on this matter, a different judge but of the same court considering the same issue in the case of Haavistola v Community Fire Co. allowed the motion for summary judgment for the defendant fire department on grounds that, as a matter of law, the fire department was not a state actor in line with the either of the three theories: exclusive governmental function, governmental regulation, and symbiotic relationship. Consequently, the district court in the instant case took notice of the Haavistola decision and made a certification of the matter for interlocutory appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of appeal, the appeal which was permitted in accordance with 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1292(b).

Before the Fourth Circuit could rule on this issue, it held it in abeyance until the appeal on the Haavistola case was decided. Accordingly, the 4th Circuit in the Haavistola case held that despite the defendant fire department not being a state actor in accordance with the state coercion or symbiotic relationship tests, the case raised a factual issue with regard to the exclusivity of fire protection in Maryland as a solely governmental function. The jury concluded unanimously that the function of fire fighting has conventionally been vested in volunteers rather than the government.

The plaintiff in Chestnut, on appeal, sought the court to affirm the district court’s denial of motion on ground that genuine factual issues made it improper for the court to grant summary judgment to the defendant fire department.


Is a volunteer fire department engaged in state action in accordance with Section 1983?


The court held that a volunteer fire department engages in state action due to the fact that it has the responsibility of carrying out an exclusive public function. Accordingly, the court remanded the case for jury consideration in line with this decision.


The court found that, as a matter of law, there was no existence of a symbiotic relationship between the government and the volunteer fire department. The fire department owned property privately and it did not lease it from the government, and this resulted in the preclusion of the requirement for a symbiotic relation to make the volunteer fire department a state actor. The court further, deliberating on the exclusivity of the firefighting function, held that it was not easy to properly decide as a matter of law on whether the firefighting function was an exclusive function of the government, but there was need to resolve genuine factual issues arising from the conflicting historical evidence. The court was of the view that the Haavistola decision could not be held as binding on ground that the genuine factual issues posed by the case needed to be decided by the jury.

In concurring opinion, Wilkinson J expressed his concern that the opinion of the majority had the potential of resulting into irreconcilable outcomes within the Maryland state in relation to the basic legal issue as to whether the volunteer firefighting departments in Maryland fell within the public function theory of state action. According to Wilkinson J, subjecting state action to the jury would lead into irreconcilable labels of the firefighting companies with indistinguishable circumstances. The learned judge was of the view that that uniformity underlying the doctrine of state action would be better considered if issues of state action were regarded as issues of law to be determined by judges instead of factual issues to be subjected to the jury.


I agree with the decision of the court that Chestnut is a state actor due to the fact that it engages in functions and exercises powers that are exclusive to the state. In addition, the volunteer firefighting department receives significant state help. It also operates in line with the laid down regulations by the state, and the state itself considers the volunteer firefighting department as a state actor. Nevertheless, a lawsuit under Section 1983 will succeed only if it meets the exclusive government function concept, the entanglements criteria, the symbiotic relationship, and the encouragement of private activities by the state (Schwartz & Kirklin, 1997). Accordingly, the Supreme Court has rejected the notion that any private entity that serves public function should be regarded as a state actor. In essence, the Court has observed that firefighting is an exclusive public function.


An example of an emergency case that would require the citation of this case is where a person applies for membership to any volunteer firefighting department in Maryland but is denied membership on ground of race. This would be regarded as discriminatory and the volunteer firefighting department would be held liable in pursuant to Section 1983 (Varone, 2014).


Haavistola v. Community Fire Co. of Rising Sun, 839 F. Supp. 372 (D. Md. 1994).

Schwartz M.A. & Kirklin J.E. (1997). Section 1983 Litigation: Claims and Defenses. Aspen Publishers.

Varone, J. C. (2014). Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, 3rd ed. Fire Engineering Books.

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