Utah Firefighters Sue Former Chiefs For Nepotism in Hiring Process

Five Utah firefighters are suing their department, the former chief and a former deputy chief claiming they were not hired sooner because the department hired less-qualified family members of ranking officers.

Last Friday Brandon Dodge, Justin Prokopis, Todd Johnson, Kiyoshi Young, and Michael DeGering filed suit againt the Unified Fire Authority, former Fire Chief Michael Jensen, and former Deputy Chief Gaylord Scott in US District Court. The complaint alleges a violation of their equal protection rights, intentional interference with prospective economic relations, and seeks equitable relief under state law.

According to the complaint:

  • This is an action for damages and equitable relief, arising under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, resulting from the Defendants’ actions in depriving the Plaintiffs of Equal Protection of the Law, as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Specifically, Plaintiffs contend that the Defendants’ conduct in the course of a hiring process that favored relatives of the then current command staff over non-relatives violated their constitutional rights.
  • This classification – treating relatives more favorably than non-relatives – is not rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest.
  • Plaintiffs seek prospective injunctive relief, back and front pay and benefits, damages, penalties, attorneys’ fees, costs and interest.
  • In approximately the early spring of 2011, UFA started a hiring process for new recruits who would become full-time, regular (i.e. year-round) firefighters.
  • The recruitment for these new firefighters was published and open to all applicants.
  • In early June 2011, each of the Plaintiffs received [an] email from the HR department at UFA stating that they were among the top-ranked candidates and were “invited to participate in the remaining portions of the selection process,” specifically the physical performance test followed by an interview.
  • Each Plaintiff took part in and passed the physical performance test on or about June 17th and sat for a final interview.
  • The final interviews were conducted by two Battalion Chiefs and an Assistant Chief who, it is believed, then discussed their conclusions with the Defendant Jensen and possibly Defendant Scott as well.
  • A few days later, UFA notified each Plaintiff that they had “not been selected for one of the thirteen available positions . . .”
  • No explanation was given as to why they were not selected or who had been selected.
  • The Plaintiffs were perplexed that they had not been chosen as they had apparently done well on the written and oral exams, were certified as EMTs, were extremely well qualified and four of the five were already working for UFA, albeit on a part time basis.
  • Even after being hired, the Plaintiffs were unable to determine why others had been hired instead of them in 2011, or why they had been passed over for hiring in 2011.
  • Any inquiries that the Plaintiffs made to HR or other command staff were rebuffed and Defendants repeatedly told that the 2011 hiring process was fair and above board.
  • Sometime in the later part of 2016, after Defendants Jensen and Scott had been forced out of their positions at UFA, the State Auditor for Utah performed an audit on “certain aspects of the Unified Fire Authority’s (UFA) internal control and compliance for the period of January 1, 2011 through July 31, 2016 . . .”.
  • Although this Audit Report focused on a number of improprieties in the way Defendants Jensen and Scott had conducted themselves, it also contained a section addressing issues during the 2011 hiring process.
  • As a result of this Audit Report, the Plaintiffs learned for the first time that there were indications that preferential treatment probably had been given to family members during the hiring process.
  • The pertinent section of the Audit Report started out by stating that “[i]n June 2011, the son and brother-in-law of the former Chief were hired by UFA.
  • We found departures from standard hiring practices which were designed to financially benefit the former Chief’s son and brother-in-law . . .”
  • After receiving this Audit Report, the Plaintiffs, through Local 1696, contacted the HR department and again requested information about the hiring process and the hiring list which had been created in 2011.
  • Although UFA had previously refused to provide this information, in February of 2011, UFA finally turned over the hiring list to Local 1696 and Plaintiffs, perhaps because Defendants Jensen and Scott were no longer employed by UFA.
  • After receiving the list, the Plaintiffs were able to see for the first time who had been hired and their positions on the list in June of 2011.
  • They then began making inquiries to determine why those individuals had been hired, if they were related to any management personnel, and if they were given special treatment.
  • Based on their inquiries Plaintiffs were able to determine that not only had the son and son-in-law of Defendant Jensen been hired in June of 2011, but that in total 9 of the 12 applicants offered positions at that time were related to either the Chief, Deputy Chief, an Assistant Chief, Battalion Chief, or in one case, a Captain in the Department.
  • Of particular concern was that the son and son-in-law of Defendant Jensen, who were hired in 2011, had absolutely no experience in fire-fighting, unlike the Plaintiffs.
  • The son of Defendant Jensen was hired directly out of high school and the son-in-law had been working as a plumber.
  • In addition, neither the son or son-in-law had been certified as EMTs until they went through the special EMT class which UFA had offered in June of 2017 at the direction of Defendant Jensen.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Dodge v Unified Fire

Incidentally, the complaint includes a copy of a portion of the auditor’s report that found the hiring process favored family members of ranking officers. 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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