Demoted Captain Sues CalFire Alleging Disability Discrimination and Retaliation

A firefighter with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has filed suit claiming he was subjected to harassment and retaliation by a supervisor, culminating is his being demoted from captain to firefighter II. Ken Meyers filed suit in Santa Clara County Superior Court naming CalFire and Battalion Chief Tim Main as defendants.

The suit alleges Meyers was discriminated against on account of an actual or perceived disability related to “stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD,” and in retaliation for certain concerns he raised to and about Chief Main. When Meyers was demoted in 2022, Chief Main and other firefighters celebrated with ice cream and cake. Quoting from the complaint:

  • In or around July 2012, Plaintiff transferred from the Command Center to Defendant [CalFire]’s fire station where Plaintiff was supervised by then—Battalion Chief Daryl Wolf.
  • Shortly before Plaintiff’s transfer, and continuing thereafter behind Plaintiff” s back, then-Battalion Chief Daryl Wolf and Fire Captain Paul Dellanini openly referred to Plaintiff as an “idiot,” and made fun of Plaintiff for having a “mental breakdown” and taking stress leave.
  • These incidents directly evidence discriminatory animus against individuals with actual/perceived mental disabilities and have been independently corroborated.
  • Beginning in or around January 2017, and continuing throughout 2018, Plaintiff suffered from disabling conditions, including but not limited to stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
  • Therefore, in 2018, Plaintiff attended a mental health retreat for approximately seven days.
  • Around November 2020, Battalion Chief Defendant Main transferred to the Santa Clara Unit and became Plaintiff’s direct supervisor.
  • Thereafter, and continuing until around April 14, 2021, Plaintiff repeatedly complained and protested to Defendant Main about safety Violations and state accounting issues.
  • For example, Plaintiff constantly protested Defendant Main’s directives to purchase items with the state credit card outside of the normal purchasing process, as such purchases were impossible to track and account for.
  • Defendant Main would also direct firefighters to obtain gear from the Service Center without completing the necessary paperwork.
  • As such, Plaintiff complained to Defendants that Defendant Main’s directives made firefighter gear more susceptible to stealing.
  • In response to Plaintiff’s complaints and protests, Defendant Main repeatedly subjected Plaintiff to threatening and/or demeaning conduct, including by telling Plaintiff, “You will do it my way or get the fuck out,” directly evidencing a hostile work environment.
  • Subsequently, after Plaintiff directed his complaints about safety violations and state accounting issues to Chief Marcucci, Defendant Main started telling other employees that he was “coming to get [Plaintiffs] job,” and stating, “we’re going to hang him (Plaintiff),” further evidencing a hostile work environment.
  • Shortly thereafter, on or around April 15, 2021 , Defendants removed Plaintiff from the Logistics Officer position.
  • Defendant Main then began accusing Plaintiff of being a “liar” whenever Plaintiff answered any of Defendant Main’s questions.
  • Beginning in or around April 2021, and continuing thereafter, Plaintiff sought reasonable accommodations, including by submitting multiple transfer requests in order to avoid Defendant Main’s aforementioned harassment.
  • Defendant State Department denied each of Plaintiff’s requests and failed to engage in the mandatory good-faith interactive process.
  • For example, on or around October 16, 2021, Plaintiff requested to be transferred to a different unit and filed an internal complaint against Defendant Main, which stated the following, among others: “Chief Main has been [subjecting me to a] hostile work environment, retaliation, hazing, slander, defamation of character, threatening my job, mental anguish, falsifying that he’s a working paramedic. He has been after me since I was assigned to work in the service center. .”
  • Defendant State Department denied Plaintiff’s request and did not take any action to investigate or remediate Plaintiff’s complaints about Defendant Main, thereby ratifying and condoning Defendant Main’s unlawful conduct.
  • Defendant Main continued addressing Plaintiff in a threatening/demeaning manner, calling Plaintiff a “liar,” and telling other employees to stay away from Plaintiff (as aforesaid).
  • As a result, Plaintiff suffered from more symptoms/exacerbated symptoms of his disabilities, including but not limited to stress, anxiety, and PTSD.
  • Indeed, Plaintiff s co-workers informed Plaintiff that they were hearing Plaintiff talk in his sleep.
  • Then, on or around June 17, 2022, Defendant State Department notified Plaintiff that he was being demoted from Fire Captain to Firefighter II, in part because of Defendant Main’s false accusations of patient abandonment, related to an emergency response that occurred on July 21, 2021.
  • Specifically, Defendant Main falsely alleged that Engineer Josh Manley failed to complete appropriate paperwork, and thus, Plaintiff was also at fault for the purported failure because Engineer Manley was Plaintiff’s subordinate.
  • Subsequently, a Skelly Review Officer determined that Defendant Main’s false allegations were unfounded, and thus, Defendants provided Engineer Manley with back pay and removed Engineer Manley’s suspension from his record.
  • However, Defendant State Department refused to reinstate Plaintiff back to his position as Fire Captain.
  • Egregiously, on or around June 24, 2022, Defendant Main held an ice cream and cake party at the Morgan Hill Fire Station to celebrate Plaintiff’s demotion, further evidencing a hostile work environment.
  • During the party, which was attended by the station’s employees and Fire Captains from other fire stations, Defendant Main boldly admitted that he was “singling out” Plaintiff and “trying to get him fired.”
  • Shortly thereafter, Defendant Main shared a picture of the party in a text message thread with Fire Captains and Engineers.
  • In the text message thread, Fire Captain Gil Rodriguez stated, “I don’t eat sweets but dang that was the best cake ever,” to which Defendant Main responded, “Yes it was.”
  • Fire Captain Herb Alpers, who worked with Fire Captain Rodriguez at another fire station, then responded, “Aww man I woulda came down for that! ! !! FUCK YEAH,” to which Engineer Anthony Rhoades responded, “It’s a fucking party. You guys are too funny.”
  • Subsequently, Plaintiff’s co-worker conveyed information about Defendants’ celebrations to Plaintiff because his co-worker felt uncomfortable about participating.

The suit alleges disability harassment, disability discrimination, retaliation, failure to engage in an interactive process to find a reasonable accommodation, failure to accommodate, whistleblower retaliation, and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress.

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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