California City Settles Suit by Department Heads

Today’s burning question: I am a fire chief and in our city, all department heads who face termination have a right to a pre-disciplinary hearing and if terminated a right to a hearing before a panel or arbitrator. I believe you lawyers would say we have a property right in our continued employment. Well, at least we used to have that right. The city manager and the council decided to change us to “at will” employees who serve at the pleasure of the city manager. Can she do that? I mean, I understand I am an executive employee and not entitled to overtime but can she and the city simply change me from having a property right in my employment to serving at her pleasure? And by the way, last year the department heads took a vote of “no-confidence” in the city manager and the timing of the new “at will” policy seems a little suspect.


The city of Hanford, California has agreed to settle a federal court suit brought in 2011 by a union representing city department heads, including Fire Chief Tim Ieronimo. The suit alleged violations of the employees’ First Amendment and Due Process rights, violations of the state’s whistleblower laws, violation of the US Constitution’s Contract Clause, and numerous state law violations by the city and former City Manager Hilary Straus.

According to the suit, the case began in November, 2010 when the department heads “signed a memorandum directed to the Hanford City Council and incoming City Council members, entitled, ‘Vote of No Confidence –City Manager Hilary Straus.’” The allegations in the memorandum are as follows:

The three page document set forth the reasons why each of the signatories had no confidence in the ability of STRAUS to properly perform the duties of Hanford City Manager. Some of these stated reasons included allegations of dishonest, unethical and potentially illegal conduct, hiding information from management and the public, improperly awarding contracts to STRAUS’ friends, potential Brown Act violations, and other unprofessional conduct.

In early 2011, Ms. Straus and the city council began considering some changes to the department head’s employment status, compensation and benefits. At about the same time the department heads formed the Hanford Executive Management Employee Association and sought collective bargaining status. When the changes were implemented over the union’s objection, the union and the department heads individually filed suit.

The settlement calls for the city to pay $389,250 for the employees’ attorney fees, costs and damages. Both sides agree that current department heads will retain an expectation of continued employment in their positions (and thus have due process rights), but that future department heads will be at will. The case was formally dismissed today with prejudice.

Here is a copy of the original complaint.  Hanford-Complaint

So easy a cave man attorney could win it.  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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