Terminated California Fire Chief Sues City

A California fire chief who was terminated in October following a vote of no-confidence by the firefighters’ union, has filed suit alleging ethnicity and age discrimination. Chief Angel Montoya filed suit in Contra Costa County Superior Court naming the City of Richmond as the sole named defendant.

Chief Montoya, who was hired by Richmond in 2021, served 33 years with the Los Angeles County Fire Department where he retired as an assistant chief. He is identified in the complaint as being Hispanic American and age 63. He claims department personnel were not welcoming to him, and he repeatedly butted heads. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Montoya found the RFD to be disorganized, chaotic, and like operating in the “Wild West” when he joined them.
  • While the LACOFD welcomed firefighters from other fire service organizations, the RFD was highly provincial in that they strongly favored firefighters who started their employment with their organization.
  • The policies that existed were not closely followed, and often ignored.
  • Montoya was used to the LACOFD’ s adherence to its policies and procedures, which caused the LACOFD to be a well-run, orderly organization.
  • By contrast, the RFD was unpredictable and treated their policies more like suggestions.
  • For example, following a promotional ceremony at the RFD, many of the attendees, all of whom were in uniform and considered to be on duty, decided to all go out drinking for a local “after party” at a public location.
  • Montoya had reminded his Command Staff at his scheduled meeting the week before the ceremony to send out a department wide communique reminding party goers that there was a policy against drinking in a public place in uniform while on duty.
  • His sober reminder was taken poorly by the Command Staff and RFD party goers who pushed back against Montoya’s efforts to “blow the whistle” on this clear violation of RFD policy.
  • Another example arose when Montoya noticed that all seven fire stations in Richmond had a poor appearance from the street.
  • During an Open House event on October 15, 2022, at one of the RFD stations, it was brought to Montoya’s attention by numerous citizens that the fire station yards were not very well kept.
  • In fact, one citizen stated she was not aware that Fire Fighters occupied the fire station because she never saw anyone, and the station looked to be deserted and abandoned.
  • During an Open House event on October 14, 2023 at the same Fire Station referred to above, a group of volunteers had beautified the front of the station with planter rocks, plants, and shrubs.
  • When Montoya thanked the lead volunteer for their work, he asked if any of the Fire Fighters came out of the station to assist them with the work.
  • The lead volunteer stated, “unfortunately, no Fire Fighters came out of the Fire Station to assist [them].”
  • She also informed Montoya that one of the volunteers who assisted was a City Council member.
  • Montoya was appalled and embarrassed by what had just been described to him.
  • At Montoya’s next weekly Command Staff meeting he described the above to no avail of understanding from all Command Staff members.
  • In fact, one Command Staff member stated, “well none of the volunteers knocked at the Fire Station to ask for help.”
  • Montoya then directed the Training Battalion Chief to move up the fire station and apparatus inspection schedule to the months of November and December to train Command Staff and line personnel of the importance of fire station and apparatus maintenance.
  • Despite his request, Montoya subsequently learned that firefighters and other sworn personnel refused to help with the work necessary to improve the appearance of their own fire stations, and many of the employees resented Montoya for asking them to join in and take pride in their equipment and workplace.
  • Ultimately, the Union pressured the City Manager to fire Montoya.
  • Montoya is the last in a line of three Fire Chiefs of color who were brought in from outside the fire service because the RFD did not have any qualified “home grown” candidates.
  • With the RFD, an experienced, disciplined professional manager, and particularly a man of color, such as Montoya, was destined to fail based on Richmond’s lenient, ad hoc style of operating, including their many attempts to find a qualified Fire Chief.
  • To instigate Montoya’s departure, the Union first orchestrated a vote of “no confidence.”
  • The RFD then ensured the vote of no confidence was highly publicized, which caused Montoya’s spotless reputation as a professional manager to be badly tarnished, if not destroyed.
  • In fact, Montoya became a non-viable Fire Chief candidate for the City of El Segundo Fire Department when the Union’s Vote of No Confidence was publicized.

The complaint alleged three counts, all under California state law:

  • ethnicity and age discrimination;
  • failure to prevent ethnicity and age discrimination;
  • whistleblower violation

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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