Montana Chief Settles Wrongful Termination Suit for $335k

A Montana assistant fire chief who was the victim of a mysterious “reorganization” following his cooperation with a criminal investigation into the fire chief, has settled his wrongful termination suit for $335,000.

Assistant Chief Brian Crandell was terminated on February 12, 2013 by the Central Valley Fire District when his position was “eliminated.” The reorganization followed two months of efforts by district officials said to be friends of former fire chief Brett M. Waters to force Chief Crandell to resign.

Chief Crandell’s problems began after he cooperated with an investigation by the Montana Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation into the theft of thousands of dollars by Waters when he was CVFD’s fire chief. Waters was charged with felony theft and official misconduct, resigned, and pled guilty to official misconduct. He also agreed to pay back $50,000 that he admitted taking.

After his termination, Chief Crandell sued for wrongful termination. The complaint alleged that friends and supporters of Waters began a campaign to get rid of Chief Crandell, with the reorganization serving as a thinly veiled pretext when all other efforts failed. The $335,000 settlement was approved by the district earlier this month.

Incidentally, when I see fact patterns like this, I wonder how reasonably intelligent people think they can get away with – what on the bare facts appears to be – blatant retaliation… let me introduce a new phrase here at Fire Law Blog: so easy a cave-man attorney could win it… no offense to Chief Crandell’s esteemed counsel… This comment is really directed those who would misuse the tools of government as weapons to exact their own personal measure of revenge.

Retaliation suits often are… so easy a cave-man attorney can win them!!!! They are typically easier to win than straight-forward discrimination cases. In fact it is not uncommon for an employee who files an initial claim of discrimination and who is thereafter disciplined – to win the lawsuit based on retaliation EVEN THOUGH HE/SHE LOSES on the original discrimination claim.

The moral to the story: when an employee complains about something illegal, or cooperates with an investigation into an allegation of wrongdoing, efforts to take disciplinary action against them (including trying to be cute by “reorganizing” their position out of existence) are destined for trouble. INDEFENSIBLE trouble… six to seven figures worth of trouble. A word to the wise…

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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