Fired Minnesota Assistant Chief Alleges Whistleblower Retaliation

An assistant chief with a Minnesota fire department who was fired earlier this year has filed suit claiming his removal was retaliation for a protected whistleblower report he made. Shea Chwialkowski served as the Assistant Chief of Training & Operations for the Richfield Fire Department until he was terminated on March 29, 2023.

Chief Chwialkowski claims he was put in a dilemma last year when he discovered a firefighter-colleague, Joshua Nelson, was in violation of the city’s residency rule. The rule requires members to reside within 10-minutes of the city. In September, 2022 he reluctantly disclosed the violation to the fire chief. When he made the disclosure, Chief Chwialkowski asked the fire chief not to identify him as the “whistleblower.”

According to the complaint, the fire chief did not confront Nelson directly, but rather conducted a driver’s license “audit” of all personnel. This audit flagged Nelson and ultimately led to his termination in December, 2022. Prior to this point, Chief Chwialkowski claims he demonstrated “exceptional job performance” during his tenure with the Richfield Fire Department. Following Nelson’s termination, everything changed.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Following Mr. Nelson’s termination, several members of the RFD, including [Fire Chief Mike] Dobesh, began treating Plaintiff differently than previously.
  • Among other things, many of the firefighters stopped speaking to him and started giving him the cold shoulder.
  • Similarly, Chief Dobesh began excluding him from high-level meetings and stopped copying him on important emails.
  • In January 2023, Chief Dobesh handed Plaintiff a document entitled “counselling memorandum,” and instructed him to sign it.
  • Chief Dobesh did not explain what the memorandum was for, but just told Plaintiff that the City Attorney wanted him to sign it to appease Mr. Nelson and his lawyer, who by this time was challenging his own discharge.
  • Chief Dobesh described the counseling memorandum as “completely meaningless” to the City. For that reason, Plaintiff signed it.
  • On February 6, 2023, Chief Dobesh met with several RFD firefighters to gather their input on his own performance, as well as Mr. Nelson’s termination.
  • Though Plaintiff was initially slated to join this discussion, he was asked to leave shortly after the meeting began, because the other firefighters were angry about him making the Whistleblower Report.
  • On information and belief, during the February 6 Meeting, several RFD firefighters continued to express anger to Chief Dobesh about Plaintiff’s role in Mr. Nelson’s termination.
  • Chief Dobesh met with Plaintiff and Assistant Fire Chief Jenell Wood after the February 6 Meeting. Plaintiff commented that Chief Dobesh looked like he had gotten his “butt kicked” during the meeting. Chief Dobesh agreed that he had.
  • Two days later, on February 8, 2023, Chief Dobesh came to Plaintiff’s office unannounced and asked him in a shaky voice to follow him to a meeting in the Executive Conference Room.
  • Though Plaintiff had no idea what the meeting was about, he did as he was instructed.
  • When he arrived at the conference room, he found Jamie Haefner, the City’s Human Resources Manager, waiting for him.
  • Chief Dobesh began the February 8 Meeting by claiming to have received a complaint about Plaintiff that was, according to him, so terrible that he wanted to fire him immediately. When Plaintiff asked about the nature of the complaint, both Chief Dobesh and Ms. Haefner refused to say.
  • When Plaintiff then noted the complaint’s suspicious timing in relation to his Whistleblower Report, Chief Dobesh and Ms. Haefner again refused to provide additional information.
  • Ms. Haefner instead slid a letter across the table notifying Plaintiff that he was being placed on administrative leave pending an investigation.
  • The letter conspicuously omitted the nature of the investigation or what Plaintiff was allegedly accused of.
  • Ms. Haefner then instructed Plaintiff to surrender all City-owned property in his possession and to leave other City property in his office. She also told Plaintiff to avoid non-public areas in the City.
  • Ms. Haefner then asked Plaintiff if he had any questions. When he said he had “about a million of them about the nature of the complaint,” Ms. Haefner refused to provide more information.
  • Word quickly got around the RFD that Defendant had placed Plaintiff on administrative leave. This led several of Plaintiff’s colleagues to reach out to him to offer support.
  • On February 27, 2023, Plaintiff met with Ms. Haefner and Assistant City Manager Sack Thongvahn to ostensibly discuss the City’s investigation into him.
  • The February 27 Meeting lasted nearly three hours. Though Ms. Haefner had told Plaintiff the meeting’s purpose was to discuss the investigation, at no point did either she or Mr. Thongvahn articulate the allegations supposedly being investigated.
  • Rather than discuss the allegations against Plaintiff, Ms. Haefner and Mr. Thongvahn spent nearly all three hours of the February 27 Meeting asking Plaintiff about random interactions he had with other RFD personnel over the years.
  • About two weeks after the February 27 Meeting, Plaintiff attended another meeting with the City.
  • This meeting included Mr. Haefner, Mr. Thongvahn, and Chief Dobesh. As before, Ms. Haefner—without offering specifics—claimed to have uncovered “serious misconduct” on the part of Plaintiff and that the City was planning to terminate him.
  • When Plaintiff asked again what he had done to justify this, Ms. Haefner refused to provide more information.
  • On March 17, 2022, Plaintiff had one last meeting with Ms. Haefner, Chief Dobesh, and Mr. Thongvahn.
  • The meeting was brief. Chief Dobesh started the meeting by telling Plaintiff he was being terminated for alleged serious misconduct.
  • He then gave Plaintiff until the close of business on March 20, 2023 to “voluntarily” resign.
  • Knowing that he had done nothing that could justify his discharge, Plaintiff refused to resign from the RFD.
  • On March 21, 2023, Plaintiff received a “Notice of Intent to Terminate” from the City Manager.
  • To date, the City has still not articulated a specific legitimate reason for terminating Plaintiff’s employment.
  • Plaintiff’s last day of employment with the City was March 29, 2023.

The complaint alleges a single count of whistleblower retaliation under the Minnesota Whistleblower’s Act, Minn. Stat. § 181.932. 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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