City Had Legitimate, Non-Discriminatory Reasons To Terminate Fire Chief

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Sep 07, 2023

Ronald Hittle was an at-will employee of the City of Stockton and served as the City’s Fire Chief from 2005 through 2011.  Throughout his tenure, Hittle’s superiors thought he exhibited a lack of judgement.  First, Hittle attended a religious leadership event on City time and in a City vehicle.  The City received anonymous complaints that Hittle gave members of a “Christian coalition” in the Fire Department preferable treatment.  Finally, Hittle also had a variety of unreported conflicts of interest, some regarding his co-ownership of a vacation home with the president of the fire union.  Hittle was counseled, but was recalcitrant and reluctant to change.

The City hired an outside investigator to look into the allegations against Hittle.  This investigation found that Hittle had violated City policies and procedures.  The City offered Hittle a Battalion Chief position until he reached age 50 and could retire.  Hittle refused and then stated he would be retaining legal counsel and bringing a lawsuit.  The City then served a notice of intent to terminate.  Hittle later claimed his Skelly meeting was a “sham” because he could not call witnesses or obtain evidence from his City email.

After the City released Hittle, he sued alleging employment discrimination under Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The district court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment.  Hittle appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Courts analyze Title VII and FEHA claims of discrimination using the McDonnell Douglas framework.  Under this framework, an employee may establish a prima facie case by demonstrating: (1) membership in a protected class; (2) qualifications for the job; (3) an adverse employment action; and (4) similarly situated employees outside of the employee’s protected class were treated more favorably, or other circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action that give rise to an inference of discrimination.

An employee may demonstrate an inference of discrimination through comparison to similarly situated individuals, or any other circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action that support an inference of discrimination. If the employee provides sufficient evidence of a prima facie case, the employer must state a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged actions.  If the employer does so, the employee must show that the proffered nondiscriminatory reason is pretextual.

Alternatively, an employee can prevail merely by showing direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination without using the McDonnell Douglas framework.  At the summary judgment stage, an employee can also show direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

Hittle offered the following examples of alleged direct evidence of discriminatory animus.  First, the City had referred to Hittle as being part of a “Christian coalition” and a “church clique.”  The City responded that the anonymous complaints about Hittle had used and created the term “Christian coalition.”  The Court noted that an employer’s repetition of another’s pejorative term does not provide evidence of the employer’s animus, but rather shows concerns about other persons’ perceptions.

Hittle then pointed to the fact that the City informed him that he was not permitted to “favor one religion over another.”  The Court stated that these statements were not direct evidence of discrimination.  Rather, they reflected the City’s legitimate concern that it could face liability if it favored certain employees based on religion.

Hittle alleged that his notice of intent was direct evidence of discrimination because of its repeated references to the leadership event that Hittle attended on City time as a “religious event.”  The Court noted that the notice relied on the findings in the investigation report, which concluded that Hittle attended a two-day event on City time that did not benefit the City because it was not the sort of leadership conference aimed at public sector leadership, and that Hittle approved three department employees to attend on City time.  The references to the “religious event” were to show the City’s legitimate non-discriminatory concerns about attending the event on City time and the lack of benefit to the City, and did not show religious animus.

Finally, Hittle contended that the City described Hittle’s attendance at the religious event as exercising “poor judgment” and as “inappropriate activity” simply “for Hittle’s own personal interests.”  The Ninth Circuit reiterated that the City had legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons to be critical of Hittle using City resources to attend an event for his personal benefit.

Hittle also pointed to circumstantial evidence he believed showed discriminatory animus.  Hittle was told that if he sued the City, he would face a long, expensive legal battle.  The Court found that this comment did not suggest any religious animus because there was no evidence that anyone discussed religion at this meeting.

The Court noted that Hittle had no evidence that his superiors made any remarks that demonstrated their own hostility to religion, because they focused on Hittle’s misconduct and how his attendance at the religious leadership conference did not benefit the City.  The Court dismissed the appeal.

Hittle v. City of Stockton, 2023 U,S. App. LEXIS 20114  (9th Cir.).

Note: This case indicates that merely quoting a third party’s discriminatory remarks is not necessarily discrimination when the employer’s real issue is the public perception regarding an employee’s misconduct. 

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