California Battalion Chief Claims Age Discrimination & Harassment

A battalion chief with the El Segundo Fire Department has filed suit claiming he has been subjected to years of age-related harassment intended to drive him off the department. Battalion Chief Shawn Bonfield filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week alleging two counts of discrimination and harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Government Code §12940.

The suit names the City of El Segundo and Fire Chief Chris Donovan as defendants.  Chief Bonfield contends that Chief Donovan has embarked on a campaign “to force older employees, particularly those over age 50, to leave the employ of the ESFD so Donovan can replace them with substantially younger employees.”

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Donovan’s actions included demanding that Plaintiff self-demote to Captain, shunning Plaintiff, excluding Plaintiff from staff meetings that he needed to attend to comply with his duties as Battalion Chief, berating Plaintiff with unwarranted criticism in the presence of colleagues and giving Plaintiff last minute assignments the deadlines of which were impossible to meet.
  • Frustrated that his efforts to force Plaintiff to leave ESFD had not come to fruition, on February 19, 2020, Donovan demanded that Plaintiff retire. Plaintiff refused, advising Donovan that he had no intention of retiring until November 2021 at the earliest when he would be age 55. Donovan responded that Plaintiff would retire in December 2020. Plaintiff again refused.
  • Due to Plaintiffs refusal to retire, Donovan’s age-motivated and pervasive treatment of Plaintiff as alleged herein continued.
  • On March 27, 2020, Donovan and Plaintiff met privately at Donovan’s request on the premises of ESFD. Donovan berated Plaintiff, telling Plaintiff that he was not meeting performance standards, was an ineffective leader and “dropped the ball on everything.”
  • None of DONOVAN’s purported criticism was valid.
  • Rather, it was a pretext for DONOVAN’s continued unlawful effort to force Plaintiff to leave the ESFD because of his age.
  • The truth was that Plaintiff was an excellent employee.
  • As a result of Donovan’s continual mistreatment, over the years Plaintiff had suffered extreme emotional distress, including anxiety, insomnia and panic attacks, and related physical maladies, all of which had caused him to seek medical treatment and resulted in hospitalizations.
  • After and because of the March 27, 2020 meeting with Donovan, Plaintiffs emotional and physical maladies increased to such a level that he was forced to take medical leave.
  • Plaintiff remains on medical leave to date.
  • After Plaintiff commenced medical leave, Donovan placed into the Battalion Chief position that had been vacated by Plaintiff two substantially younger employees. Consistent with his age- related prejudice Donovan refused to place into that position a more qualified ESFD Captain who is over age 50.

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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