CA Firefighters File Retaliation Lawsuit Following Complaints Over Excessive Overtime

A long running dispute over firefighter pay, staffing levels, and overtime has reached the boiling point in Manhattan Beach, California. This past week, a group of twelve city firefighters filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city has unlawfully retaliated against them after they went public with complaints over what they refer to as “crushing” amounts of overtime in recent years.  In a seventy-nine-page complaint filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California the firefighters lay out a long litany of allegations that primarily revolve around chronic staffing shortages and excessive overtime.

According to the firefighters, between March 2018 and June 2022 the city opted to suspend hiring firefighters in an effort to save on pension and other benefit costs associated with hiring new personnel. Instead, the city utilized overtime to fill those vacancies. As a result, the total uniformed firefighting force of 29 dropped to as low as 20 and overtime [much of which was mandatory] soared. This “crushing” amount of overtime demoralized and exhausted the firefighters and eventually they took their complaints to the public. According to the firefighters that is when city officials began retaliating against them. Specifically, the firefighters allege that city blocked the promotions “firefighters who spoke out publicly against the city” and launched baseless “disciplinary investigations against union leadership.”

The firefighters’ lawsuit is not rooted in the FLSA, rather the lawsuit arises under Constitutional grounds found in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. The firefighters allege that the city and certain city officials took adverse employment actions against the firefighters after they participated in protected speech. Quoting from the complaint:

  • At all times mentioned herein, Plaintiffs’ constitutionally and legally protected activities were related to matters of public concern, and were undertaken as private citizens and not pursuant to job duties. Plaintiffs’ speech was on matters of public concern because it was relevant to the public’s evaluation of the performance of public officials, was relevant to citizens’ decisions about the operation of government, and was relevant to residents’ understanding of the reliability and capabilities of emergency services in the city. Plaintiffs’ right to be free of adverse employment actions taken in retaliation for their union activity, speech on matters of public safety and concern, criticism of the management of the Department, and petition the government was clearly established at all times relevant herein.
  • As a direct result of Plaintiffs’ exercising their constitutional rights tomspeech, expression, assembly, association, and petition for redress of grievances, as well as their right to organize under federal law, Defendants retaliated against Plaintiffs as set forth herein by imposing adverse employment actions on them, including, inter alia, adverse employment actions against individual Plaintiff Firefighters, actions intended to reduce the membership and resources of the ASSOCIATION, and actions intended to reduce the pay, benefits, professional development, retirement, and authority of Plaintiff Firefighters. Plaintiffs’ exercising their constitutionally and legally protected rights to speak, associate, expression, assembly, petition, and organize was a substantial and motivating factor in Defendants’ decision to take adverse employment actions and to enforce the retaliatory Imposed Contract against them, as set forth herein.

The firefighters are seeking compensatory, economic, and non-economic damages in excess of $5 million. This includes possible punitive damages for mental and emotional injuries, distress, anxiety, and humiliation.  In addition, the firefighters are seeking their attorneys’ fees and the costs associated with the lawsuit.

Click here, for more on the story from the Los Angeles Daily News and a copy of the complaint is posted below.

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