California Union’s Retaliation Suit Against City Officials Dismissed

A lawsuit filed last year by Santa Maria City Firefighters IAFF Local 2020 accusing the city, Fire Chief Leonard Champion, former City Manager Rick Haydon, and Human Resources Director Jayne Anderson of retaliation, has been dismissed against the three officials.

The case arose after the city opened promotions for captain up to firefighters from outside the Santa Maria Fire Department. The union claimed the city failed to properly negotiate over the issue and sought the assistance of the state IAFF affiliate, California Professional Firefighters. CPF sent a notice to all its members discouraging them from applying.

When Chief Champion learned of the CPF notice, he sent out a notice to the department expressing his dismay. The department then launched a disciplinary investigation into the entire executive board “Regarding a publication of a post discouraging external applicants from applying for employment with the City at the Fire Captain rank, an action with potentially serious consequences for the City, including but not limited to restricting the City’s ability to fill open  positions with the best possible candidates.”

Local 2020 deemed the disciplinary investigation to be retaliation for the exercise of the executive board members’ First Amendment rights. Suit was brought in the name of the local, as well as the five named executive board members.  The investigation was subsequently halted

The city moved initially to have the individual defendants, Chief Champion, Haydon, and Anderson, dismissed from the suit based upon qualified immunity. As explained in the ruling:

  • Qualified immunity “shields federal and state officials from money damages unless a plaintiff pleads facts showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established’ at the time of the challenged conduct.”
  • Even assuming that Plaintiffs have plausibly stated that the individual Defendants’ actions amount to unconstitutional First Amendment retaliation, they have not shown that those actions contravened a clearly established right particularized to the facts of this case.
  • [T]he Court has already determined that Plaintiffs’ speech was not [public speech].
  • Plaintiffs did not endure any formal punishment as a result of the individual Defendants’ actions.
  • In sum, regardless of whether Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the individual Defendants’ conduct violated the First Amendment right to freedom from retaliation for protected speech, Plaintiffs have not identified preexisting precedent clearly establishing that a reasonable official in the individual Defendants’ shoes would have known that their particular conduct was unlawful.
  • Qualified immunity therefore shields the individual Defendants from liability under the circumstances of this case.

Here is a copy of the decision.

The case will now proceed against the city. 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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