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.
  • mr618

    Well, this ruling should certainly help her in the lawsuit.

    • CurtVarone

      If the city’s own civil service commission didn’t buy the chief’s testimony – I don’t think a federal court jury is going to.

      • mr618

        Of course, we might well be making the famous mistake of thinking that courts act logically…

  • Naytch

    Published author as well:

    “Division Chief Martha Ellis has been a firefighter with the Salt Lake City Fire Department (SLCFD) for more than 17 years, serving as a firefighter, an engineer, a media technician, an ARFF training officer, an airport fire marshal and currently the fire marshal for Salt Lake City. She has won the Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge Women’s Division five times, and held the world record for 8 consecutive years. She also works as a certified fitness coordinator for the SLCFD.”

    She seems really “disengaged”… sheesh

    • CurtVarone

      Naytch… you stopped too soon:

      “4. From 2002 to 2004, Ellis was a Media/Technician/Documentation Unit Leader. From 2004 to 2005, she was a Captain and Manager of the SLCFD Aircraft Rescue Firefighter Training Center. She then served as the Salt Lake City International Airport Fire Marshal from 2005 to 2009. From 2009 to 2014, she was the Fire Marshal and Fire Prevention Bureau Division Chief, and from 2006 to 2011 she was the Fitness Editor and a columnist for Fire Rescue Magazine, an internationally circulated fire service publication. Ex. 81 (Doc. Nos. ME751-758).

      5. In 2014, Ellis served as the Division Chief for Emergency Management, Intelligence Coordinator and Logistics, which was the position she held at the time she was demoted from Battalion Chief to Captain in 2016. Id.

      6. Ellis has an impressive educational background. She obtained a Bachelors of Animal Science degree from Colorado State University in 1987. She obtained an Associate of Fire Science degree from Utah Valley University in 2005. In 2009, she was awarded a graduate certificate in Conflict Resolution and Mediation from the University of Utah, where she also was awarded a Master Mediator Award. Id.; Tr. Day 2, Vol. 1 at
      91-92 13

      7. In 2012, Ellis was awarded a fellowship to the Harvard Kennedy School of Governance for senior executives in state and local government, which was an “amazing opportunity” for her to collaborate with an incredible group of people. Ex. 81 (Doc. Nos. ME751-758); Tr. Day 2, Vol. 1 at 106-107.

      8. Ellis then attended the Naval Postgraduate School’s program in Homeland Security and Defense Center in Monterey, California, and, in 2014, she was awarded a Masters of Arts in National Security Studies. Ex. 81 (Doc. Nos. ME751-758); Tr. Day 2, Vol. 1 at 99-100.

      9. Over the course of her career, Ellis has been involved in a variety of organizations where she has served the community, including her service as a member of the Board of Directors of the Girl Scouts of Utah and the TAG Ranch for kids, and she has served on the Advisory Board for the Salvation Army. She has also received numerous awards, including the Salt Lake City Fire Chief’s Recognition Medal and its Certificate of Merit, as well as SLCFD’s Golden Spanner Award.”

      Perhaps folks were concerned she might be too much competition head-to-head for their next promotion…

      • Naytch

        Wow! I just remembered her as being published in one of the trade magazines and grabbed her Fire Rescue bio. That is amazing!


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