Reference to “Fire Chief” in Firefighter’s Bill of Rights Means “Lead” Fire Chief of the Jurisdiction

Category: Client Update
Date: Apr 5, 2018 11:05 AM

George Corley was a long-time firefighter who accepted a position as a Battalion Chief for the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District (“District”).  He was later promoted to a Division Chief.  Corley received numerous awards over the course of his career with the District and positive performance evaluations.  When he was terminated, Corley sued the Department for age discrimination, and he prevailed on his claims after a jury trial.  On appeal, the District sought to reverse the judgment on the grounds that the trial court judge improperly failed to instruct the jury that the Firefighter’s Procedural Bill of Rights (“FBOR”) justified Corley’s termination. 

The jury instruction in question re-stated the FBOR at Government Code section 3254(c):

“A fire chief shall not be removed by a public agency or appointing authority without providing that person with written notice, the reason or reasons for removal, and an opportunity for administrative appeal.

The removal of a fire chief by a public agency or appointing authority, for the purpose of implementing the goals or policies, or both, of the public agency or appointing authority, or for reasons including, but not limited to incompatibility of management styles or as a result of a change in administration, shall be sufficient to constitute ‘reason or reasons.’…”

The District asserted that the instruction applied to Corley because the District’s termination letter stated that Corley was terminated due to a change in administration and incompatibility of management styles.    The District argued that had the court instructed the jury on Government Code section 3254(c), the jury could have found that Corley was lawfully terminated and that his termination was not discriminatory based on age.

Corley disagreed with the District and asserted that the instruction applies only to the “lead” fire chief of a Fire District, which Corley was not.

In reaching its conclusions in favor of Corley, the appellate court analyzed Government Code Section 3254, which addresses the punitive actions that employers may take against firefighters and fire chiefs.  The court found that the words of section 3254 support the conclusion that the provision only applies to a lead fire chief position.  The court found it was particularly significant that section 3254 refers to “a fire chief” without referring to other classifications of chiefs such as “deputy chiefs,” “assistant chiefs,” or “division chiefs.”  The court also noted that the FBOR does not define the term “fire chief,” which would be expected if the statute were intended to “apply to any position with the word ‘chief’ in it.”

With regard to the legislative history of the FBOR, the court noted it was modeled after the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights (“POBR”), at Government Code section 3304(c). Relying on its earlier interpretation of the POBR in Robinson v. City of Chowchilla (2011) 202 Cal.App.4th 368, the appellate court found that the POBR, in turn, “was enacted to apply solely to a jurisdiction’s Chief of Police.  As a result, interpreting FBOR section 3254 (c) as pertaining only to the jurisdiction’s “fire chief” was appropriate.

Thus, the Court of Appeal found there was no legal error and affirmed the trial court judgment in favor of Corley.

Note:

This decision provides important clarification of the term “fire chief” as used in the FBOR. It also confirms that as to the lead fire chief of the jurisdiction, a fire district or other employer is obligated to provide a very general reason or reasons for his or her removal, and an opportunity to take an administrative appeal.

George Corley v. San Bernardino County Fire Protection District,  2018 WL 1324820 (Cal.App. 4th Dist.).

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