California Jury Awards Fired Chief $4.1 Million

A Los Angeles County jury has awarded a former fire chief $4.1 million in damages for wrongful termination and an assortment of employment related counts. West Covina Fire Chief Larry Whithorn claimed he was terminated after a lengthy campaign by a handful of local officials who believed he took too much time off due to various medical and disability-related reasons.

The lawsuit alleged 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. Here is a link to earlier coverage on the initial filing of the lawsuit. Last Friday the jury found in Chief Whithorn’s favor, reportedly for disability discrimination, disability retaliation, whistleblower retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Quoting from a press release by his attorneys:

  • During the trial, testimony revealed that the West Covina Firefighters Association, through its then-president Matthew Jackson, allegedly engaged in various tactics to leverage a better union contract for the City’s firefighters, which included targeting Whithorn immediately after his medical leave with a vote of no confidence.
  • The trial also included testimony from the City’s councilmember Tony Wu, who was endorsed by the union and alleged to have called for Whithorn’s termination as an “absentee Chief,” and City Manager David Carmany, who revealed false statements made under oath in relation to the circumstances surrounding Whithorn’s termination.
  • Anthony Nguyen of Shegerian & Associates, one of Chief Whithorn’s attorneys, expressed his satisfaction with the verdict: “We are very happy for Chief Whithorn. For almost three decades, he faithfully served that City and its community before his rights were egregiously violated. Hopefully, this lights a fire in that City’s council and management to better protect its faithful civil servants.”

The San Gabriel Valley Tribune quoted  West Covina City Attorney Thomas Duarte as saying:

  • We respect the judicial process and the jury’s role in it, but we also respectfully disagree with the verdict that was reached.
  • We intend to file post-trial motions to address certain issues with the court and will appeal this matter if necessary.

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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