Fire Chief can bring Free Speech and Whistleblower Claims Against City of Nampa

By: Loyd Willaford and Matt Baker

In Strosnider v. City of Nampa, an assistant fire chief claimed that he was discharged from his job in retaliation for exercising rights under the First Amendment and Idaho whistleblower law. The assistant fire chief notified two apartment building managers of the need to renovate their buildings, despite the misgivings of the Mayor of Nampa. After issuing the warnings, the assistant fire chief was terminated.

Doug Strosnider was an assistant fire chief for the City of Nampa. He was asked to investigate two apartment buildings as part of a Fair Housing concern. He also had concerns about the fire safety status of the two apartment buildings. Acting on this concern, he sent two of his Fire Marshalls to inspect the buildings. After the inspection, Strosnider wanted to issue Notice and Orders to the buildings to improve their safety or shut down. The Mayor of Nampa did not want the orders issued, but Strosnider went ahead and issued them anyway. He was then fired by the City.

Strosnider brought a lawsuit against the city alleging that the city had violated his right to free speech and had terminated him as retaliation for speaking on a safety issue, in violation of Idaho whistleblower law. He also claimed due process violations in the loss of his job without appeal and the slandering of his name by the government. The City moved for summary judgement, which the Federal District Court of Idaho denied. The Court stated:

At the very least, there is a disputed issue of fact as to why Strosnider was terminated. Accordingly, the Court will deny summary judgment

Strosnider initially disclosed information on the buildings as part of a Fair Housing investigation. This was outside the scope of his job as a fire chief, and therefore he was speaking as a private citizen on a matter of public importance. Thus the Court ruled that Strosnider’s First Amendment claim, taking the facts in the light most favorable to him (the standard of review in summary judgement motions) had enough merit to be heard by jury.

The Court also ruled that Strosnider’s other claims, namely his whistleblower claim and the due process claims, also had merit. The whistleblower claim rested on the reasoning behind the City’s decision to fire him. The due process claim depends on whether or not City law had vested him with a property interest in his job. Accordingly, the motion for summary judgement was denied.

This case is a good example of the intersection of rights to free speech, whistleblower protections, and general property rights in employment by public sector employees, including management. The case also illustrates the importance of having a good story to tell. The optics of this case were not good for the City of Nampa: an assistant fire chief is fired for no specific reason after cooperating with the Federal Housing Authority in an investigation of sub-standard housing. The firing took place after the assistant chief delivered deficiency notices to owners of the buildings over the Mayor’s objection. Free speech rights for public employees is a somewhat complicated area of the law, but this Court easily found that assistant fire chief could bring a first amendment claim based on retaliation for cooperating with the Federal Housing Authority. Similarly, the Court easily found that there were triable issues of fact with regard to whether or not the City had improperly interfered with Strosnider’s property rights in his job by not granting him due process. In a case with less egregious facts on the whistleblower front, it is possible that a court would have dismissed this claim since Strosnider was in management and not subject to collective bargaining agreement and Strosnider was given a brief post-termination hearing.  

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