California Fire Department Settles OSHA Claims and Civil Suit

A California fire protection district that a CalOSHA investigator characterized as “acting like a bunch of 2-year-olds in a pissing match”, has reached a settlement with the state and a former fire district board member.

The Mokelumne Hill Fire Protection District agreed to pay a $1500 fine to CalOSHA to settle health and safety violations, and $50,000 to settle a lawsuit by a former firefighter and board member, Mark Foley.

Foley claims shortly after he was elected to the board in 2011, he raised a concern about an intoxicated firefighter responding to a run. Following his complaint, he claims he was retaliated against and ultimately removed from the department. Foley also reported additional concerns to CalOSHA.

In response to Foley’s complaint, CalOSHA launched a formal investigation. According to industrial hygienist Karen Helton-Jorgensen, who conducted the CalOSHA investigation, Foley’s allegations “were all true. They [Mokelumne Hill Fire Protection District] were all found to be in violation, every single one of them.” Most of the violations were “serious” violations, carrying a possible fine of $18,000 to $25,000, but a few were willful, carrying a fine of up to $70,000.

However, what concerned Helton-Jorgensen even more than the safety violations was the fact that fire district personnel were being intimidated and afraid to cooperate with her investigation. The Calaveras Enterprise quoted Helton-Jorgensen as follows:

  • “Every employee that I came into contact with was afraid to talk to me. “
  • “I actually had one employee break down and cry because she was afraid, so afraid to talk to me, and that the repercussions were going to be it was going to affect her career.”
  • “(District Board President Suzie Coe) told me she was going after Mark Foley, that she was going to get him removed from the board”
  • “She was more concerned about getting even with Mr. Foley … than anything to do with the fire department or the safety of their employees.”
  • “She made it very loud and clear. … She was going to make them pay. Those are her exact words.”
  • “I [had to tell the district] that they were impeding the investigation and that I was going to have to get a warrant if it didn’t stop”
  • “I had to tell them many, many, many, many times. It was ridiculous how many times I had to tell them to stop.”
  • “I even made the point of telling them, ‘You guys are acting like a bunch of 2-year-olds in a pissing match. I feel like I have to tell you both to go to your corners and stop, and act like an adult,’”
  • “The whole focus should be on, is the fire district in compliance (with OSHA) or are they not?”

CalOSHA opted to consolidate the 20 or so violations into a single citation so as not to bankrupt the district, issuing a $1500 fine.

Foley filed suit against the district claiming retaliation, and Helton-Jorgensen figured to be his star witness. The district’s insurance carrier agreed to settle the case for $50,000 prior to trial. According to the Calaveras Enterprise, Foley has opted to move out of the area, leaving Fire Chief Dave Spitzer to reflect on what transpired:

  • “We ended up paying $1,500 in fines”
  • “We had to make those corrections and we made those corrections.”
  • “(The settlement) didn’t come out of our coffers”
  • “We didn’t pay him a dime. … We denied ever intimidating him. He made the whole thing up.”
  • “It took us three years to get it resolved, but in the end, we didn’t admit to anything. … I guess you could say, we came out of it OK.”

Here is 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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