Salt Lake City’s Demotion of Female Chief Officer Reversed

In a scathing 49-page decision, the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission reversed the demotion of the fire department’s first female chief officer, and in the process raised serious questions over whether the department’s leadership targeted her. The ruling handed down November 1, 2017 orders the Salt Lake City Fire Department to reinstate Chief Martha Ellis as a Battalion Chief and give her full back pay and seniority.

Chief Ellis was demoted by Assistant Chief Rusty McMicken on May 3, 2016 for what he characterized as “lack of performance”, namely “(1) an apparent lack of engagement with her current assignment; (2) a lack of ownership of her job responsibilities; (3) an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions; and (4) a lack of respect for her chain of command.” Chief McMicken also listed seven specific allegations that he considered to be the grounds for her demotion.

The Commission wasted no time ruling that Chief McMicken lacked the legal authority to order Ellis’s demotion, nor could the fire chief have lawfully delegated that authority to him. The commission went on to systematically dissect each of the seven allegations of “lack of performance” in great detail.

The commission concluded that Chief McKicken’s allegations were “not supported by substantial evidence,” which the commission interpreted to require at least “a mere scintilla of evidence.” The opinion stated: “It appears to the Commission that McMicken was looking for reasons to discipline Ellis.”

Among the more important notable quotes from the decision:

  • In short, the Commission finds that this is another example of McMicken attempting to build a case to discipline Ellis, instead of trying to coach and counsel a dedicated employee on how she can improve her performance.
  • Again, these allegations appear to the Commission to be an attempt to manufacture misconduct and alleged failure of performance to justify the disciplinary action, when there were no performance issues.
  • Further these allegations appear to be very minor in nature and nothing that would support a demotion of Ellis.
  • The Commission expressly finds that Ellis has an outstanding service record that further supports its determination that the demotion was unjustified.
  • [T]he Commission finds, based on the findings set forth above, that the discipline imposed on Ellis was unduly excessive and clearly disproportionate to the alleged offenses, and that it exceeded the bounds of reasonableness and rationality.
  • Specifically, the discipline was not proportional given the nature of the alleged offenses and the fact that the Commission finds that they were not substantiated.
  • The Commission also notes that there was evidence in the record that two witnesses were informed by Captain Kochevar that he had heard that the decision had been made to demote Ellis before she had even had her Pre-determination hearing.
  • Specifically, Cristal VanDongen testified that, before Ellis’ Pre-determination hearing, Captain Kochevar personally told her that he had just come from a meeting with McMicken and that “he had it from a very high source that [Ellis] was going to be demoted.”
  • Similarly, Brittany Blair testified that Captain Kochevar told her, after Ellis was placed on administrative leave, that he had heard that Ellis was going to be demoted.

Here is a copy of the decision: CSC FF-CL Decision and Order in Ellis 11-01-17 Signed by CSC

Chief Ellis currently has a federal lawsuit pending against Chief McMicken, former Fire Chief Brian Dale, current Fire Chief Karl Lieb, and the city alleging gender discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and whistleblower violations. 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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