Fired Washington Chief Sues for $1.4 Million

A Washington fire chief who was terminated following a vote of no-confidence by the firefighters’ union, has filed suit claiming breach of contract and violation of his due process rights.

Fire Chief David Bathke was fired by the City of Ocean Shores in January. According to the complaint, Mayor Crystal Dingler handed him a letter placing him on administrative leave in December, 2018. Chief Bathke, who was hired in June, 2017, had a written employment contract that said he could only be terminated for “cause.”

The suit names the City of Ocean Shores and Mayor Dingler as defendants. It was filed last week in US District Court for the Western District of Washington. From the complaint:

  • When Chief Bathke was hired he was told that the City had been without a Fire Chief for some time, that the union employees were running amok and needed to be controlled.
  • Among other things, the employees were abusing the overtime budget and costing the City unneeded expense.
  • Bathke was told that he needed to be a strong leader, ensure that the rank and file firefighter operate in accordance with city rules, established directives, and to reduce the out of control overtime pay.
  • This was specifically told to him by Dingler on April 19, 2017 during pre-hiring meets that the City held with Bathke.
  • At the time that Chief Bathke was being lured by the City to be its fire chief, he was a finalist for other lucrative opportunities to serve as fire chief and a position in management, but based on the representations of the City’s Mayor that they sorely needed his type of direction and leadership, Chief Bathke gave up his other lucrative opportunity and went to work for the City.
  • Chief Bathke did exactly what he was directed to do by the City. This, obviously, upset the unionized firefighters as, for the first time in a long time, they were forced to account for their actions, to meet the requirements of industry standard safety practices, to comply with city policies, to follow established union contractual language, and to control their abuse of overtime.
  • Chief Bathke was commended on numerous occasions for his sound leadership and direction over the fire department both in private and publicly by the Mayor, City Council members, and city residents.
  • Suddenly, with no notice whatsoever, on December 14, 2018, Chief Bathke was handed a letter from the City’s Mayor stating that he was being put on paid administrative leave because the union had taken a vote of no-confidence regarding him.
  • At the same time, Chief Bathke was escorted by the City’s police force off the City’s premises.
  • At no time prior to receiving this letter was Chief Bathke ever notified that he had engaged in any wrongdoing, in any activity that was even questionable, or that his leadership was subject of any concern.
  • To the contrary, Chief Bathke’s office is located right next to the Mayor’s office and they share a common door with a half-door size glass window.
  • This resulted in frequent encounters with the Mayor, and he was under the belief that he was implementing her instructions and she was very happy with his work.
  • On January 16, 2019, the Mayor sent Chief Bathke a letter which stated that she spoke with several members of the union and retained an outside investigator to conduct a review and investigation of the climate and work atmosphere of the fire department.
  • The Mayor stated in her letter that Chief Bathke had lost the respect of union employees of the fire department and that she did not see a path for Chief Bathke to continue as Fire Chief and requested that Chief Bathke resign with four months of salary as severance pay.
  • The letter from Dingler on January 16, 2019 included a Separation Agreement and General Release dated February 8, 2019 and a Letter of Resignation addressed to Dingler dated February 8, 2019.
  • Mayor Dingler’s statement that she had hired an investigator to review Chief Bathke’s conduct was merely pretextual, as she had already decided to terminate him as  evidenced by, among other things, the fact that she stated there was no path forward for him and provided a Separation Agreement.
  • In short, the City took disciplinary action and terminated Chief Bathke without providing Chief Bathke with a notice of the reasons for the termination and without any explanation.
  • If Chief Bathke did not resign, he would be placed on unpaid leave and the Mayor would move forward with separation.
  • Chief Bathke was left in the dark about the reasons for the union no confidence vote and had no idea what conduct could possibly result in discipline against him.
  • Neither the Mayor nor the outside investigator ever spoke to Chief Bathke during this so-called investigation, nor was any report ever provided to Chief Bathke.

The complaint contains six counts: breach of contract, due process (property-interest), due process (liberty-interest – name clearing), retaliation, promissory fraud, and negligent misrepresentation. Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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