Stockton Chief Alleges Religious Discrimination

Some cases never seem to go away. There always seems to be one more filing, one more twist. That is the case with fired Stockton, California Fire Chief Ron Hittle. Back in early 2011 he was suspended based on his attendance at a Christian leadership training conference in 2010.

Believing his days were numbered, Chief Hittle filed a pre-emptive suit to challenge the city’s ability to fire him. He claimed that a recent city charter change making the fire chief an at-will employee did not apply to him, and that he was subject only to the old charter. The suit did not stop the city from moving forward with firing him, and in the end the court sided with the city.

Chief Hittle is back in the news today for filing a wrongful termination suit against the city and his former bosses, City Manager Bob Deis and Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes. He alleges he was discriminated against on account of his religion, in violation of state and Federal law. Suit was filed in Federal District Court for the Eastern District of California back in March, but just reached the notice of the media.

The city’s stated reasons for firing the Chief were:

  • He and three of his deputies attended a Christian-affiliated leadership conference while on-duty, violating regulations that prohibit personnel from attending religiously themed events at taxpayer expense.

Note: Chief Hittle counters that he and the deputies paid for the conference themselves, and that he attended the conference only after being told by Deputy City Manager Montes that he needed attend a training seminar to improve his leadership skills. His lawyer argued “He was encouraged to go to a leadership conference, and this is the one he picked… The city can’t unlawfully terminate him because they don’t like the one he chose.”

  • He was too friendly with the union’s leadership and was not hard enough discipline-wise.
  • He failed to disclose that he co-owned a vacation cabin with Fire Marshal Matt Duaime and Captain Dave Macedo, president of the Stockton Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 456.
  • He failed to disclose his business relationship with a city-paid consultant

The case has become complicated even further due to Stockton’s financial situation. Stockton is contemplating filing for bankruptcy protection. The exact impact of a bankruptcy filing is hard to predict. Some types of debts are non-dischargeable in bankruptcy. In addition, even if the case against Stockton is placed on hold due to a bankruptcy proceeding, Chief Hittle’s case against Deis and Montes personally could proceed.

Here is Chief Hittle’s complaint. Hittle v Stockton

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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