California Firefighters Claim Excessive Mandatory Overtime is Retaliation

The Manhattan Beach Firefighters Association, IAFF Local 3925, and twelve named members have filed suit against the city claiming they are being retaliated against for voicing their concerns about mismanagement of the fire department, by being subjected to excessive mandatory overtime. The 79-page lawsuit names the city, Mayor Bruce Moe, and HR director Lisa Jenkins as defendants.

The suit accuses the city of implementing a policy to leave vacant firefighter positions unfilled, necessitating overtime to staff the trucks. As time went on additional vacancies created so much overtime that firefighters were routinely ordered to work. When firefighters complained about the excessive mandatory overtime, the city responded by publicly blaming the firefighters for the situation, accusing them of being “overpaid and entitled.”

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Defendant BRUCE MOE became City Manager in 2018.
  • MOE, who was previously the CITY’s Finance Director, believed that the CITY could and should “save money” on future pension and benefits costs by not filling vacant Department positions and requiring the remaining personnel to work overtime.
  • Moe’s ill-conceived vision of “budget efficiency” is the epitome of the penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking of a person who has never had to work 24 hours straight, without sleep, as a first responder to emergency calls.
  • MOE’s approach, which resulted in brutal and excessive mandatory overtime for 20 firefighters who had to do the work of 30 firefighters, took a severe physical and psychological toll on Plaintiffs.
  • After years of struggling with these issues, MBFA and Plaintiff Firefighters began to speak out publicly about the troubling situation.
  • However, MOE and his allies, including the CITY’s previous and current Human Resources Directors Teresia Zadroga-Haase and LISA JENKINS, respectively, had all the power, and they used it to retaliate against and punish the Association and its members for daring to expose the City’s mismanagement of the Department to the public.
  • MOE and the CITY viewed MBFA’s and Plaintiff Firefighter’s public statements as a challenge to their authority.
  • Instead of listening to Plaintiffs’ legitimate concerns regarding the Department’s needs to maintain public safety, MOE lashed out at them: He accused the firefighters of being overpaid and entitled.
  • He supported that falsity with annual pay figures that were inflated due to the excessive, unsustainable, mandatory overtime hours the CITY itself had created by dangerously understaffing the Department.
  • MOE repeatedly publicly criticized Plaintiffs after exercising their First Amendment speech rights for being the “highest paid” firefighters in the state to distract the public from the City’s gross mismanagement of the Department.
  • Meanwhile, the firefighters became the most overworked firefighters in California.
  • The CITY continued to retaliate against the firefighters and the Association for their public statements in many ways:
  • The CITY unilaterally and capriciously manipulated the promotional process for three vacant battalion chief positions to ensure that vocal firefighters, including MBFA leadership, would not be promoted.
  • The CITY refused to negotiate in good faith with the Association over the expiring labor agreement.
  • The CITY initiated baseless, retaliatory disciplinary investigations against MBFA leadership.
  • Finally, the CITY’s retaliation campaign culminated in the fall of 2022 when it voted to impose unfair labor terms upon the City’s firefighters without their consent. The imposed contract subjected Plaintiffs to onerous and arbitrary conditions not imposed on other CITY workers, and that serve no purpose but to punish MBFA members.
  • Defendants MOE, JENKINS, and the CITY took these steps to (1) break the Association and intimidate it and its members into silence and submission (in other words, to force them to abandon the exercise of their First Amendment rights); (2) retaliate against MBFA and its leadership for lawful negotiating and organizing activities; and (3) to retaliate against and silence individual firefighters’ constitutionally protected speech as citizens on matters of public concern.
  • A government’s repeated and dangerous mismanagement of emergency services is always a topic of great concern to the public, especially in the throes of a global pandemic.
  • By their conduct, Defendants stifled the constitutional rights of the firefighters and endangered Manhattan Beach residents.

The complaint includes a single count of retaliation based on the exercise of the plaintiffs’ First Amendment right to free speech and association, actionable through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They are seeking in excess of $5 million in general damages, plus punitive damages and attorneys fees.

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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