Friday, October 9 , 2015, 7:04 pm | Fair 86º

Carpinteria-Summerland Firefighters Sue District, Chief Over Safety Concerns, Labor Practices

By Lara Cooper, Noozhawk Staff Writer | @laraanncooper |

Three firefighters filed a lawsuit last week against the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District and its chief, claiming that they were retaliated against for pointing out safety violations that endangered themselves and potentially added cost to taxpayers.

Firefighters Christopher Blair, Han Domini and Michael Hayek brought the suit against their employer as well as Chief Michael Mingee, who is also named as a defendant on the suit.

The complaint was filed Nov. 27 in Santa Barbara Superior Court. The plaintiffs are being represented by Jonathan and Jennifer Miller of Nye, Peabody, Stirling, Hale and Miller LLP.

The three men claim that they were subject to retaliation by the district and its chief, and one claims he was wrongfully terminated.

Each of the men, described in the complaint as "firefighters with long-standing exemplary careers," are alleging labor violations and asking for a jury trial.

The complaint begins by stating that the men "discovered numerous health and safety violations by the district and raised several workplace safety concerns."

Among their concerns was the district not providing proper equipment to firefighters, failing to implement and uphold physical fitness programs, and failing to allow the firefighters to submit forms documenting that they had been exposed to hazardous materials, the complaint states.

The complaint also states that the district failed to follow the "two in and two out" rule when fighting fires and failing to provide proper fire and safety training, resulting in unsafe working conditions, the men said, as well as jeopardizing fire prevention and suppression in the community.

Chief Michael Mingee told Noozhawk on Thursday that he couldn't comment on the case, and Ben Miller, the district's board president, had no comment other than stating that "the district and the fire chief are defending against the plaintiffs' allegations."

The complaint from the firefighters states that when they tried to raise concerns, they were disregarded and retaliated against.

The complaint states that Blair had been appointed to oversee health and safety issues for the district after he was hired in 2012 and had supervised Domini and Hayek, the other two plaintiffs, who also served on the district's health and safety committee.

Blair discovered that the district was not complying with health and safety regulations, which could result in Cal-OSHA fines and a lower Insurance Services Organization rating, potentially increasing taxpayer costs, the court documents stated.

One example listed was after firefighters fought a fire on Nov. 9, 2012, in which they were exposed to hazardous materials. The three plaintiffs filled out a hazardous materials exposure forms, which are required by law, but which Mingee allegedly refused to sign and accept.

Ultimately, an audit was done by the insurance organization that affirmed that the health and safety concerns the men had raised were valid, the complaint states.

"As a result of the district and Chief Mingee's failure to address these concerns, the ISO downgraded the district, which resulted in higher insurance costs to the district and to taxpayers," according to the complaint.

The health and safety committee the plaintiffs served on was also responsible for overusing individual firefighter's levels of fitness, and the complaint states that when Mingee found out the assessments were going on, he put a stop to them.

One of the assessments identified that one of the district employees "did not have the sufficient physical capability to complete the test," which Blair reported to Mingee, who "refused to act on those findings and provide additional physical training."

That employee was injured a few weeks later, the complaint said, after which "Mingee then requested a letter to be drafted absolving him of liability."

Mingee also allegedly refused to comply with the "two in, two out rule" because he did not want to go out on rescue calls, the paperwork states.

The chief refused "because he was not capable of passing the required physical fitness assessment test. It was for this reason that Chief Mingee also objected to the physical fitness assessment program."

The complaint states that within days of the firefighters raising concerns, Mingee "personally manipulated" the promotional test results of Domini to deny him a promotion to an engineering position.

When Blair confronted the chief about the results, "he was immediately terminated with explanation."

Mingee also allegedly circulated a picture of a snake wearing a firefighter helmet with the words "bad attitude" to other management and claimed the picture was representative of Hayek.

Hayek claimed that when he applied for a promotion, "he was denied the necessary materials required to test for the promotion."

Mingee "routinely referred to the plaintiffs as 'the cancer'" and suggested that those who raise health and safety concerned need to be managed out of the department, the complaint said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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