Bench trial concludes in former Ocean Shores fire chief’s wrongful termination suit against the city

The bench trial in a lawsuit former Ocean Shores Fire Chief David Bathke brought against the City of Ocean Shores, alleging wrongful termination, concluded Feb. 25. Both sides will now file briefs as Judge Benjamin H. Settle determines the validity of the suit before rendering a decision.

The lawsuit, filed by Bathke in the federal Western District Court of Washington at Tacoma April 23, 2019, seeks damages relating to his termination as fire chief by Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler March 22, 2019.

The original complaint asks for “compensatory damages in an amount to be proven at trial, which is presently estimated to be no less than $1,400,000.” Settle has directed parties to address damages in post-trial briefs due to him this month.

Dingler said, “We believe the trial went well overall, but will decline to comment on the specifics as the matter is still pending.” She said the post-trial briefs process will go through March and she doesn’t anticipate a ruling in the case until some time in April.

Bathke’s attorney, Scott Wellman, said, “We are presently preparing post-trial briefs. It would be inappropriate to comment on the case at this time.”

History of the case

Bathke was offered the Ocean Shores job by Dingler in April 2017. According to court documents, “Bathke and the City entered into an agreement stating that he could not be terminated except for ‘cause.’”

According to the suit, Bathke was “a finalist for other lucrative opportunities to serve as fire chief and a position in management” and gave those up to work for Ocean Shores.

According to Bathke’s complaint, at the time he was hired, he was told “that the city had been without a fire chief for some time, and the union employees were running amok and needed to be controlled. Among other things, the employees were abusing the overtime budget and costing the city unneeded expense. Bathke was told that he needed to be a strong leader, ensure that the rank and file firefighters operate in accordance with city rules, establish directives, and to reduce the out of control overtime pay.”

In November 2018, Dingler was informed that the city’s union firefighters were considering a no confidence vote against Bathke. Court documents state Dingler said she met with Bathke regarding the impending no confidence vote; Bathke said that meeting did not happen.

Court documents state that Dingler was informed in December that all 19 of the union members present for the no-confidence vote had voted in favor of it.

“Two senior firefighters then proceeded to describe the significant areas of concern regarding Chief Bathke’s managing of the department, including his disregard for and alienation of staff; his arrogant and narcissistic manner; the fact that his conduct was causing some members to seek employment with other agencies; his poor relations with Grays Harbor Emergency Management; and other areas of significant concern,” according to court documents.

On Jan. 16, 2019, Dingler sent a memo to Bathke informing him of the city’s offer for Bathke to resign in return for four months’ severance pay. Bathke refused the offer and retained counsel. Dingler directed Bathke to appear at a pre-termination hearing and provided a list of charges under six categories: Failure to establish trust and confidence among staff; poor judgment and decision making with respect to purchases and expenditures; failure to comply with policies; failure to comply with policies and legal requirements in personnel matters; failure to respond promptly or properly to calls; disrespectful comments and behavior to and about others; and dishonesty.

Dingler attached over 150 pages of documents supporting the charges, according to court documents.

The hearing was held March 12, 2019, and Bathke was informed by letter of the city’s decision to terminate his employment March 22. Bathke then filed his lawsuit a month later.

Upcoming

Settle has directed both sides to file post trial briefings from the parties in lieu of oral argument.

“The Court requests specific briefing on the appropriate standard for breach of contract,” read Settle’s order dated Feb. 25. “Additionally, the Notice set out multiple grounds for discipline; some of those grounds were apparently not sustained, while other stated reasons were sustained. Mayor Dingler made a termination decision based upon those which were proven to her satisfaction and justified, as far as she was concerned, her termination decision. The Court is interested in whether these finding met the ‘for cause’ standard.”

Settle’s order continued, “The briefing should also address the fairness and good faith of the City’s process and investigation as well as to what extent possible noncompliance with City policies and/or industry standards informs the question of the presence or lack of good faith.” If the Court finds that there was not a fair process, “the parties should brief to what extent, if any, this renders a termination decision wrongful, even when cause had been otherwise established.”

The briefings should also address damages, wrote Settle.

Bathke’s opening brief and proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law are due March 12; the city’s response is due March 24. Bathke then has a chance to reply by March 30.