California Fire Chief Sues for Wrongful Termination

A California fire chief who was terminated last year has filed suit alleging wrongful termination and an assortment of employment related counts.  Larry Whithorn, who was promoted to fire chief in West Covina in December, 2014, was terminated by the city on April 22, 2019.

The suit was filed last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court. According to the complaint, Chief Whithorn was terminated after a lengthy campaign by a handful of local officials who considered him to have taken too much time off due to various medical and ADA protected reasons.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • From December 2016 to April 2017, Whithorn took FMLA/CFRA leave for a series of medical issues.
  • He took non-FMLA/CFRA medical leave again from June to September 2017.
  • During this time, Whithorn’s supervisor asked Whithorn where he was and also met with him during his leave as Whithorn’s supervisor was getting pressure to either get Whithorn to come back or get someone else in Whithorn’s position.
  • Taking these leaves caused Whithorn to be viewed by many in the department as an “absentee” fire chief, and he received backlash from many for taking time off.
  • His absence was also improperly shared with the media.
  • In January 2018, Whithorn had to take additional time off to care for a very sick relative.
  • He knew that any more time he spent away was dangerous for his career but had no choice but to take the time to care for his relative.
  • Not long after taking time off in January 2018, Whithorn’s social media account was hacked.
  • He quickly complained that he felt harassed and threatened by this action and wanted to make city management aware that this was happening to him.
  • In April 2018, while visiting West Covina Fire Station #2, defendant Kennedy said, “I’m here to get the chief fired.”
  • Whithorn complained about this to the city manager, who informed defendant Johnson.
  • Around the same time, Whithorn saw that someone wrote “fired” next to his name on the phone directory and also made complaints to HR about feeling harassed and targeted by that conduct.
  • In May 2018, Whithorn learned that defendant Wu was trying to gain a majority in the City Council and his next order of business would be to fire the fire chief.

The complaint contains twelve counts, including age discrimination, disability discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and a violation of the California Firefighter Procedural Bill of rights. All of the claims are state law claims focused primarily on the Fair Employment and Housing Act, Government Code section 12940, which is California’s primary anti-discrimination statute.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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