LCW Partner Morin Jacob And Associate Attorney Nathan Jackson Win Dismissal Of Former Fire Chief’s Retaliation Claim

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Mar 06, 2023

An LCW team led by Partner Morin Jacob and Associate Nathan Jackson won the dismissal of a lawsuit against a fire district client. In October 2018, a fire district hired its interim fire chief as its fire chief under a two-year employment contract.   During this time, the fire district was investigating misconduct allegedly committed by the previous fire chief.  The new fire chief assisted with numerous investigations into issues regarding his predecessor.

At some point during his employment, allegations surfaced that the fire chief discriminated against a fire district employee based on age.  The fire district then investigated the fire chief.    On July 27, 2020, the district informed the chief his employment contract as fire chief would not be renewed and would expire on October 3, 2020.

On November 30, 2020, the now-former fire chief’s attorney sent a demand letter to the fire district’s counsel:  accusing the district’s board of retaliation by not renewing the fire chief’s employment contract; demanding three years of salary as damages; and asking the board to rescind its decision to allow the employment contract to expire. The former chief filed a complaint alleging retaliation on February 7, 2021.

On September 2, 2021, the fire district’s attorneys informed the former chief’s attorneys of the district’s intention to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings on the grounds that the chief had not filed a timely governmental claim as required by the Governmental Claims Act (GCA).  On September 9, the former chief filed a petition to be relieved of the GCA requirements, arguing that his attorney’s settlement demand letter substantially complied with them.

While his petition to be relieved from the GCA was pending, the former chief amended his retaliation lawsuit to allege that his November 30 demand letter substantially complied with the GCA.  The trial court denied the chief’s petition, finding that the settlement demand letter did not substantially comply.   The district once again filed a motion to dispose of the complaint for failure to comply with the GCA.  This time, the trial court granted the motion without offering the former fire chief an option to amend.  The chief appealed to the California Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision.  First, the Court noted that case law has consistently held that:  1) a document must be submitted to the specific address and/or individual that the governmental agency has specified in its claims procedures to be accepted as a claim, and 2) communications addressing the potential settlement of a claim do not meet the requirements of the GCA.  The Court found that the former chief’s November 30 demand letter fell under this “settlement” umbrella, and did not meet the GCA requirements.  In addition, the chief did not provide the letter to the appropriate individuals at the designated address.  Thus, the letter was not a valid claim.

The Court also noted that the former chief’s petition to be relieved of the requirements of the GCA simply repeated that the November 30 demand letter substantially complied with the GCA.  The Court found the chief failed to offer any evidence why he should be excused to file a late claim.  Therefore, the case was dismissed.

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