Ronald Hittle was the Fire Chief in Stockton, California. In May 2010, the City received an anonymous letter describing Hittle as a “corrupt, racist, lying, religious fanatic who should not be allowed to continue as the Fire Chief of Stockton.” It was later revealed that the letter came from a high-ranking manager in the Fire Department, who told the Deputy City Manager, Laurie Montes, that Hittle showed favorable treatment and gave more desirable assignments to a “coalition” of employees who shared his Christian faith. Montes spoke with Hittle about the allegations, telling him she had heard he was a part of a “Christian Coalition” and that he “shouldn’t be involved in that.” When Hittle responded that she couldn’t tell him he couldn’t practice his faith while off duty, Montes inquired about his off-duty “Christian activities.” According to Hittle, she indicated he should not engage in “those types of activities” with other firefighters, but she took no further action.
Problem Employee Attends Religious “Training”
Around the same time, Montes became concerned about Hittle’s conduct and job performance. For instance, although the City was facing possible bankruptcy, Hittle obstructed efforts to cut the budget and refused to lay off employees (even though every other City agency made layoffs). He failed to discipline firefighters who visited nursing homes, wearing their on-duty Fire Department uniforms, and telling the residents that if a specific ballot measure passed, the Fire Department would be unable to timely provide emergency services for seniors. Similarly, he imposed only minor discipline on the president of the firefighters’ union (with whom he co-owned a vacation property) for giving citizens’ private health information to the media in violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act – even though this conduct resulted in a lawsuit and a preliminary injunction against the City.
Because of these and other issues, Montes directed Hittle to find and attend a leadership training program. Ideally, the program would be one designed for Fire Chiefs; at a minimum, Montes instructed him that the program should be for “upper management of public entities.” Hittle claimed that he searched for training programs but was unable to find any in California that were not prohibitively expensive.
Hittle was then “gifted” (the court doesn’t say by whom) four tickets to an event called the Global Leadership Summit. The event was sponsored by and held at a church, and its promotional materials stated it “exists to transform Christian leaders around the world with an injection of vision, skill development, and inspiration for the sake of the LOCAL CHURCH.” Hittle – together with three other Stockton firefighters – traveled in a City vehicle to attend the two-day Summit. All four were on duty at the time, and all four received their normal compensation for those two days.
Misconduct Allegations Substantiated by Investigator
About a month later, the City received a second anonymous letter that reported Hittle and other Fire Department personnel had “attended a religious function on city time.” When Montes questioned Hittle, he confirmed the allegations were true. He insisted that, although the Summit included “a religious component,” it was an appropriate leadership training. Montes again mentioned the perception that Hittle favored a clique of Christian employees and advised against favoring them over other employees. He continued to defend his conduct and told her she had no right to tell him whom to associate with or tell him not to practice his faith “on his own time.”
Concerns about Hittle’s conduct continued to mount. Among other things, he allowed an employee to falsify time records and obtain overtime wages on days he had not worked overtime. The City retained an outside investigator to look into the multiple allegations of misconduct by Hittle. In a 250-page report, the investigator found almost all of the allegations against Hittle to be substantiated. The City terminated his employment, and he sued for wrongful termination, claiming he was discriminated against because of his religion.
Termination Was for Legitimate, Non-Discriminatory Reasons
The trial court rejected Hittle’s claims, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Evidence that much of the investigator’s report focused on the religious nature of the training program Hittle and the other firefighters attended did not sufficiently show discrimination. The City had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating Hittle: Even if the Summit provided some non-religious leadership training, it was undisputedly not focused on management of public agencies (that is, it was not the kind of training Hittle had been instructed to receive) and, as such, did not benefit the City. There was no evidence suggesting that other employees were ever allowed to attend events – whether religious or secular – while on duty, receiving pay, and using a City vehicle, that were of no benefit to the City.
Nor were a few statements by Deputy City Manager Montes that could be interpreted as hostile to Hittle’s religion sufficient to prove discrimination. Specifically, Hittle believed Motes used the terms “Christian coalition” and “those types of [religious] activities” in a derogatory way. Though courts have, in some circumstances, found that isolated comments made by a decisionmaker can prove discrimination, they have done so only where the comments “clearly sexist, racist, or similarly discriminatory,” such as stating stating “women should only be in subservient positions” or referring to an employee as a “dumb Mexican.”
Finally, Hittle unsuccessfully argued that comments by Montes that the City was not permitted to promote religious activities or to favor one religion over another were evidence of bias. To the contrary, the court described these observations as reflecting a genuine concern that the City could violate the Constitution and face liability if it were perceived as giving certain employees more favorable treatment because of their religion. (Note that private employers are not bound by constitutional provisions prohibiting religious favoritism but could face civil claims from employees who practice a different religion, or no religion.)
Practical Pointers for Employers
There are two main takeaway from the Hittle case for employers. First is the vital importance of investigating allegations of employee misconduct and documenting performance problems. Proof of legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for disciplining and/or terminating an employee is invaluable for an employer faced with a claim of discrimination. A thorough report from an objective, knowledgeable, and experienced investigator can be particularly powerful. As the Hittle court noted, an employer’s decision to credit the investigator’s conclusions or to terminate an employee can be incorrect without making the employer liable, so long as the decision was not motivated by bias.
Second, and relatedly, an employee is not termination-proof simply because he or she has a protected characteristic, even if the reasons for the termination relate to that protected characteristic. Hittle wasn’t insulated from discipline by the fact that some of his misconduct involved the exercise of his religion. However, any employer contemplating terminating a worker with a protected characteristic and/or who has engaged in protected conduct should be prepared to prove that its termination decision was made for legitimate, legal reasons.
You can read the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in Hittle v. City of Stockton here.