Probationary LA County Firefighter Claims Disability Discrimination

A probationary firefighter with the Los Angeles County Fire Department who resigned after just ten months on the job due to stress and harassment, has filed suit against the county claiming disability discrimination. The suit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging six counts of employment discrimination under state law.

The firefighter started with the fire department on November 25, 2020. He contends that in February, 2021, the unexpected deaths of his best friend and a close family member caused him great distress. According to the complaint:

  • After Mr. Hardin informed his colleges about his sudden losses and explored the possibility of co-workers covering his scheduled work shifts, he was met with apathy and was unable to get his scheduled work shifts covered so that he could grieve.
  • Mr. Hardin felt that the workplace culture was no[t] sympathetic to him needing to take time off to grieve, so he did his best to cope and continued working without taking any time off.

Hardin claims in June he began having mental health problems, leading to an emergency room visit. Thereafter he sought help from the department’s peer support team. He returned to work toward the end of July, and claims that his colleagues were hostile towards him. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Soon after returning, Mr. Hardin was cornered in the kitchen by a senior Firefighter
  • Paramedic, who immediately questioned why Mr. Hardin had taken a leave of absence. The conversation that followed left Mr. Hardin with the impression that the other firefighters were not happy about his leave of absence.
  • Being questioned in such a hostile manner left Mr. Hardin feeling very intimidated and feeling as if his disability were being discussed among members of the department while on leave.
  • In a similar incident that followed soon after, Mr. Hardin was questioned by on-duty personnel about his future working with the department.
  • When Mr. Hardin began to answer, another firefighter, Buddy Burton who was listening in, interrupted Mr. Hardin while he was going into detail about his plans with the department and said, “that’s if you don’t get fired.”
  • Mr. Hardin asked Mr. Burton why he implied that he could potentially be fired and asked him what he had meant.
  • Before Mr. Burton could answer, the engineer cut off further conversation and told Mr. Hardin to “drop it.”
  • At or about the beginning of August 2021, Mr. Hardin requested another leave of absence from work for his disability.
  • On or about August 19, 2021, while Mr. Hardin was on leave from work, he received several letters from the Los Angeles Fire Department concerning his leave of absence. The letters from Los Angeles Fire Department informed Mr. Hardin that he was eligible for continuous leave from July 15, 2021, through September 15, 2021, and that he must notify the Los Angeles County Fire Department of his intentions to return to work no later than two days before he returns by contacting his leave coordinator.
  • Mr. Hardin believed that the communications from the Los Angeles County Fire Department ran contrary to [his battalion chief] telling Mr. Hardin that he could take off as much time as he needed.
  • Mr. Hardin felt like he wasn’t being supported by the Los Angeles Fire Department because of his disability, while he was on leave and when he had returned to work after his first leave.
  • As a result, Mr. Hardin felt that he would face further retaliation and ridicule from his coworkers and supervisors if he were to return to work from his leave of absence.
  • As a result of retaliation and harassment because of his engagement in protected activity, Mr. Hardin submitted his resignation letter on or about September 11, 2021.

The suit seeks $1,000,000 in damages for six violations of California Government Code §12940 et seq., including discrimination; harassment; retaliation; failure to prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation; failure to provide reasonable accommodation and failure to engage in a good faith interactive process.

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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