Fired fire chief claims age discrimination. $704K. San Bernardino County.

Summary

San Bernardino County terminates long-time division fire chief, replacing him with a younger, cheaper employee.  Lack of reason for firing leads to claim of age discrimination.

The Case

  • Case Name: George Corley v. San Bernardino County Fire Protection District
  • Court and Case Number: San Bernardino County Superior Court / CIVDS1206008
  • Date of Verdict or Judgment: Thursday, April 14, 2016
  • Date Action was Filed: Monday, June 11, 2012
  • Type of Action: Employment
  • Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. John M. Pacheco
  • Plaintiffs:
    George Corley
  • Defendants:
    San Bernardino County Fire Protection District
  • Type of Result: Jury Verdict

The Result

  • Gross Verdict or Award: $704,000
  • Net Verdict or Award: $704,000
  • Award as to each Defendant:

    $704,000 in favor of plaintiff, George Corley, against defendant San Bernardino Fire Protection District.

  • Economic Damages:

    $704,000

  • Non-Economic Damages:

    0

  • Punitive Damages:

    N/A

  • Trial or Arbitration Time: 5 weeks.
  • Jury Deliberation Time: Less than 3 hours.
  • Jury Polls: 11-1
  • Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: None.

The Attorneys

  • Attorney for the Plaintiff:

    Sandra L. Noel, Redlands.

    Law Office of Christopher M. Carrillo by Chris Carrillo, Redlands.

  • Attorney for the Defendant:

    Gutierrez Preciado & House LLP by Arthur C. Preciado and Clifton A. Baker, Pasadena.

The Experts

  • Plaintiff’s Medical Experts:
    None.
  • Defendant's Medical Experts:
    None.
  • Plaintiff's Technical Experts:
    None.
  • Defendant's Technical Experts:
    None.

Facts and Background

  • Facts and Background:

    Plaintiff Chief George Corley, now the Fire Chief for the Running Springs Fire Department, but age 58 at the time of his termination by San Bernardino County in February 2012, was terminated after 38 years in the fire service, including over 8 years as a Division Chief and Battalion Chief for San Bernardino County Fire. There was no record of disciplinary action during his career.  Defendant replaced plaintiff with a significantly younger Division Chief, one  without any chief-officer experience.

    Evidence of discriminatory tactics and discriminatory comments were presented over the course of the month-long trial.

  • Plaintiff's Contentions:
    That the county discriminated against Chief Corley because he was the oldest division chief at age 58 and was the highest-step earner.  
     
    That Mr. Devereaux,  the county's CEO, was determined to cut costs in any manner possible. That his plan was to replace the older, top-step employees with younger, less expensive employees. 
     
    Plaintiff was replaced by an individual who was 10 years younger and who was not qualified for the position as he had never had any chief officer experience.   
     
    Prior to the new fire chief, Mark Hartwig, becoming employed in May of 2011, it had always been a requirement for someone applying for the division chief position to have at least 2 years of battalion chief experience. Further, that In an effort to promote younger people faster,  Mark Hartwig unilaterally changed that requirement without  the County's Board of Supervisors' approval,  which is required per their own policies. Thus, Mark Hartwig was able to promote a captain,  who had never served in any chief officer position,  to division chief with a cost savings of around $11,000.  
     
    Hartwig had also reassigned plaintiff Chief Corley to another position about an hour from where he lived.  Bret Henry,  former firefighter union president, testified that he was personally aware that the department's management utilized "freeway therapy" in order to get people they didn't want to quit or retire. Henry also testified that after Hartwig had reassigned Chief Corley,  Hartwig complained to Henry that he was frustrated Corley was refusing to retire. Hartwig told Henry that he had had a conversation with Corley about retiring and after Corley told him he couldn't retire because his daughter was still in school, Hartwig stated, "does he expect me to raise his daughter! " Shortly after this conversation Chief Corley was terminated without any reason being given.  
     
    The day before chief Corley's administrative hearing, Corley's attorney  at the time, sent a letter to HR and Hartwig stating that he believed Hartwig's actions were discriminatory based on Corley's age.  The day of the hearing Hartwig finally came up with a reason,  "incompatibility of management style." When asked at the hearing what that meant, Hartwig declined to offer any explanation.  After the lawsuit was filed, Hartwig came up with ten alleged reasons.
     
    One of the reasons given by Hartwig was that Corley had mismanaged his budget. However,  it was determined that Corley's budget problem was a result of benefits that had not been factored into the new fiscal year budget for the entire department and as a result, all five division chiefs had a deficit, not just Chief Corley. Hartwig also lied and said that Corley did not show up to a fire. When confronted with the computer-assisted dispatch report,  Hartwig was forced to admit that Corley had shown up.  
     
  • Defendant's Contentions:

    The defendants contented that plaintiff served at the pleasure of the appointing authority and therefore he could be fired for any reason.

Additional Notes

At a court sponsored mediation in 2013, plaintiff offered $300,000 and went down to $250,000. The defendants offered $15,000. The second mediation (private) resulted in plaintiff's final offer of $800,000, which included attorney's fees and costs. The defendants offered $75,000. 

Disclaimer

This is not an official court document. While the publisher believes the information to be accurate, the publisher does not guarantee it and the reader is advised not to rely upon it without consulting the official court documents or the attorneys of record in this matter who are listed above.

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