Oregon Chief Awarded $500k for Wrongful Termination

An Oregon fire chief who was terminated in 2013 after refusing to unilaterally reduce staffing was awarded $500,000 in damages last week by a US District Court jury. Fire Chief James Wenzel brought the lawsuit in 2015 claiming that Klamath County Fire District No. 1 breached his employment contract and retaliated against him after he objected to an unlawful order.

The suit named the Fire District, the entire board of directors, and the Fire District’s attorney, Stephen Hedlund. According to Chief Wenzel, Hedlund instructed him to not fill vacancies created by vacation and sick leave with firefighters on overtime in order to save money. Chief Wenzel contended not filling the vacancies would violate the collective bargaining agreement, and thus was not a lawful order.

The issue came to a head in February, 2013 in a contentious meeting where Chief Wenzel claimed the order was improper and Hedlund became very angry. The Board eventually sided with Chief Wenzel, but Hedlund “began making unfounded accusations against Wenzel in an effort to have his employment with KCFD1 terminated.”

The District fired Chief Wenzel in August , 2013 without a hearing or opportunity to respond as required by his employment agreement. The District argued that because he was fired for performance issues related to the budget and not for disciplinary reasons, the section of the contract that dealt with discipline did not apply. The jury ruled that the District breached Chief Wenzel’s employment contract, but ruled he did not prove retaliation.

Here is more on the story.

Here is the original complaint: Wenzel v Klamath County

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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