Fire Chief Wins $704k In Age Discrimination Lawsuit

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, CA – A former division chief for the San Bernardino County Fire Protection District who alleged in a lawsuit he was fired due to his age has been awarded $704,000 by a jury.

Following a monthlong trial in San Bernardino Superior Court, the seven-woman, five-man jury announced its verdict Monday, determining George Corley’s age was a “substantial motivating reason” for his termination, court records show.

The jury awarded the 62-year-old Corley $544,000 for past lost wages and $160,000 for future lost wages for a combined total of $704,000, according to the verdict form filed in court.

Only one juror voted against Corley, said Corley’s Redlands attorney, Sandra Noel.

“I definitely think it was fair,” Noel said of the verdict in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I think it was a long time coming.”

Noel said the county has the option of appealing the verdict.

Fire district spokeswoman Tracey Martinez deferred comment to county spokesman David Wert, who declined to comment.

Corley, now the chief of the Running Springs Fire Department, was fired in February 2012 after serving eight years with the fire district. He was 58 years old at the time. He previously served 27 years with the U.S. Forest Service and before that worked for CalFire for three years, Noel said.

Noel is also representing two former county firefighters in another age discrimination lawsuit: former division chief John Salvate and former Battalion Chief Michael Weis. Like Corley, they allege county fire chief Mark Hartwig, since taking over the department in May 2011, has been ousting older firefighters as a cost-savings measure while revising policies that allow younger firefighters to ascend the ranks more quickly and reel in more overtime. That case is still pending.

Shortly after taking charge of the fire district, Hartwig unilaterally eliminated a policy requiring firefighters to first serve as battalion chief before qualifying for promotion to division chief, Noel said. That enabled captains to bypass the battalion chief rung on the ladder and go straight to the next rung: division chief.

After Corley’s termination, Don Trapp was promoted to division chief, taking Corley’s previous position, Noel said.

Corley, who has 38 years of firefighting experience under his belt, has a spotless record of conduct. He was honored by former Rep. Jerry Lewis for heroism during the 2003 Old Fire, when Corley and fellow firefighters stood atop a ridge and kept the fire at bay for three days in Lake Arrowhead, Noel said.

“This is a guy who is renowned and well-respected in the fire community,” Noel said.

Corley was an at-will employee with the county, meaning he could be terminated without reason at any time. But the fire district ultimately cited “incompatible management style” as the reason for letting Corley go after the alleged age discrimination, Noel said.

“You can terminate someone without a reason, but it can’t be an illegal reason,” Noel said.

Corley subsequently took the job with the Running Springs Fire Department, but took a $10-an-hour pay cut, plus a loss in pension benefits, Noel said.

“(Corley) wept after the verdict came in. He felt vindicated,” Noel said.

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