Fired Ocean Shores fire chief wins breach of contract suit, awarded more than $730,000 in damages

Former Ocean Shores Fire Chief David Bathke, fired in March 2019, has been awarded more than $730,000 in damages by a Federal District Court judge.

“The city breached its agreement” with Bathke, concluded U.S. Western District Court Judge Benjamin H. Settle in his decision, filed Thursday. “As a result of the breach, Bathke suffered damages in the amount of $734,376.50.”

Bathke filed the suit in April 2019, shortly after he was fired by Mayor Crystal Dingler, seeking no less than $1.4 million in damages.

“The City of Ocean Shores is disappointed in (Thursday’s) decision by Judge Settle in the David Bathke v. City of Ocean Shores lawsuit,” said Dingler. “We are grateful that Judge Settle did not award Bathke the $1.4 million he was seeking. Nevertheless, we are reviewing his decision and exploring all of our options.”

Case history

Bathke was hired as fire chief by the city in April 2017. In November 2018, Dingler was informed that the city’s union firefighters were considering a no confidence vote against Bathke. The following month, all 19 union members present for the no-confidence vote approved it.

In court documents, Bathke said he was told at the time he was hired there were serious issues within the department that would require his strong leadership. Union firefighters said his management style was abusive and disrespectful, and Dingler charged that Bathke had shown poor judgement in decision making and failed to comply with personnel policies and legal requirements. Dingler called Bathke in for a disciplinary hearing March 12, 2019; Bathke was then informed via letter that the city was terminating his employment.

Bathke then filed his breach of contract case, saying the city did not show “cause” for his termination or follow proper disciplinary procedures prior to his termination.

Court’s decision

Settle’s decision noted that no complaints were filed against Bathke in the nearly year and a half of his employment, despite the fact he had implemented several changes, “many of which some firefighters disagreed with.”

Settle took issue with Dingler’s decision to place Bathke on paid administrative leave a few days after the no-confidence vote “without seeking any response or information from Bathke or conducting an independent inquiry.”

“Bathke was blindsided, without any prior notice or warning of the no confidence vote that was suddenly followed with Bathke being placed on administrative leave,” read Settle’s decision.

In his 28-page decision, Settle said Dingler “may have attempted to be objective in her findings and ultimate conclusions,” but “her deliberative process was infected by an unfair process leading up to the (March 2019) pre-termination hearing. When she wrote the letter proposing his resignation, she appeared to have made up her mind that Bathke’s employment was going to end.”

Settle continued, “She did not do anything more before the pre-termination hearing than rely on what turned out to be, in many cases, the firefighters’ inaccurate, misleading, or incomplete reports and allegations. Even more astonishing is that her investigation did not include an interview with Bathke or an opportunity for him to provide evidence until the pre-disciplinary hearing itself.”

Settle also addressed Bathke’s termination’s impact on his future employment elsewhere, writing in his opinion that, despite applying for jobs throughout the country, “Bathke has not been able to find another full-time permanent job.”

During the trial, Bathke produced a log of the applications he’s submitted, mostly within the fire service, to a total of 254 positions between Feb. 2019 and November 2020. The city argued that Bathke had not “thoroughly exhausted his possible opportunities through all the available openings” listed in trade publications.

“The court finds that Bathke took reasonable steps to secure employment in the fire service and made some effort to seek work in related fields,” read Settle’s decision. He did find that the present value of his lost future income is 50% the amount calculated by Bathke’s attorneys and decided on the settlement figure of $734,376.50.