Mission Peak over Lake Elizabeth, in Fremont, California

Fremont firefighter gets $2.6 million in retaliation lawsuit

Employees who speak up about illegal wrongdoing at work are protected by California law, and may have a strong legal case if the employer takes a retaliatory action against them.

Retaliation occurs when a worker is subjected to negative employment actions for exercising their right to report discrimination, harassment, or other illegal actions at work. While employers may take a wide range of retaliatory actions, some examples include demotions, pay cuts, unfavorable shifts or tasks, transfer to a less desirable position, exclusion from workplace meetings and wrongful termination. 

The recent case of a Fremont firefighter highlights the fact that retaliation can occur at any level of employment. A former division chief of the Fremont Fire Department sued the City of Fremont for retaliation in August 2018. She received a $2.6 million settlement in December 2022.

In the lawsuit, Diane Hendry said the Fremont Fire Department retaliated against her for raising concerns about the unlawful dismissal of a trainee. She accused department leaders of engaging in a two-year “campaign of retaliation” against her for speaking out. Hendry was eventually forced out of her job after rising through the ranks during a 30-year career.

In 2016, the city’s firefighter training academy dismissed a trainee for failing performance tests. When Hendry reviewed video footage of the tests, she found that the woman had passed them. The trainee was reinstated and sued the city, settling the lawsuit in 2017.

Hendry, who was division chief of administration at the time, claimed the “campaign of retaliation” started once she began investigating the recruit’s unfair dismissal. The head of the training academy lost his job, and two other members of the training team retired soon after.

Hendry said department members blamed her for what happened. She was shut out of important meetings, removed from certain duties and had complaints filed against her. A 2017 performance review, however, described Hendry as “dedicated,” trustworthy and professional. Two other departmental division chiefs at the time backed her accusations during depositions and agreed that it appeared Hendry “was blamed for everything.” 

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act protects employees from retaliation. Retaliation can take many forms and often emerges as a pattern of adverse employment actions that negatively affect a worker’s conditions of employment. In this case, Hendry noticed immediate unpleasant and unfair changes to the nature of her employment once she spoke up about the trainee’s dismissal.

In 2018, Hendry temporarily transferred to Fremont’s police department. When she sought to return to the fire department, her requests were denied despite multiple positions being available. Additionally, the wildfire season and COVID-19 pandemic were used as pretexts to claim the former firefighter’s return to the fire department would be “disruptive.”

Hendry believed she was “targeted for simply speaking up, for going against the culture.” She is the third high-ranking member of public safety to file a retaliation lawsuit against Fremont officials in recent times. The allegations in all three lawsuits follow a similar pattern in which a whistleblower spoke out against alleged wrongdoing, highlighted the need for members of their respective departments to take accountability and then experienced a systematic campaign of retaliation.

If your employer is targeting you for retaliation, it may feel like you have no choice but to tolerate the unfair treatment. However, you can hold them accountable for violating your employee rights. Discuss your situation with an experienced San Francisco employment lawyer to learn more about your legal options. Contact McCormack Law Firm for a free case evaluation.

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