Three firefighters filed a lawsuit last week alleging that concerns they voiced about reported safety violations within the the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District were met with retaliation from the department and its chief.
Plaintiffs Christopher Blair, Han Domini, and Michael Hayek allege that Chief Michael Mingee and the department responded to their complaints by terminating Blair, manipulating test scores to prevent a promotion for Domini, and inflicting emotional distress upon both Blair and Hayek.
The lawsuit also claims that Mingee’s alleged disregard for the safety violations led an insurance underwriter — Insurance Services Office (ISO) — to downgrade the district, resulting in higher costs for taxpayers.
Though the fire department was downgraded, Mingee said in an interview this week, it had nothing to do with the health and safety of firefighters. The district’s board of directors has also denied the claim and will defend the lawsuit, he explained.
“ISO rates fire departments for one thing only: their ability to deliver a sufficient amount of water to a fire,” Mingee said. “Over one-half of the grading has nothing to do with the fire department — it grades the water distribution system. The agency that regulates that is OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], and the fire district has no complaints or citations registered with them.”
Blair was responsible for overseeing the department’s Health and Safety Committee, which Hayek and Domini joined. According to the case file, the committee was responsible for conducting physical fitness assessments.
The lawsuit alleges that Mingee refused to conduct these tests, and as a result, one firefighter who failed to pass was injured at work a few weeks later. According to the complaint, Mingee halted the fitness tests because he was unable to pass them himself.
“I don’t need to pass the fitness test,” said Mingee. “I could, but as fire chief it is not required of me.” Mingee also stated that firefighters were only required to pass an annual physical exam administered by a doctor, and that the fitness tests mentioned in the lawsuit were not used to determine preparedness for duty.
Blair arrived at the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Protection District in 2012 after 26 years with the City of Santa Barbara Fire Department. He was hired as a Battalion Chief and appointed District Safety Officer. Toward the end of his probational period as an employee, Blair was fired. According to the lawsuit, this was in retaliation to Blair’s safety concerns and his support for fellow firefighter Domini.
The case file states that Domini was cheated out of a promotion by Mingee, who allegedly took home his promotional assessment and manipulated the score so he would not be considered. Blair allegedly confronted Mingee about Domini’s assessment score and was terminated on the spot, without explanation.
The case file was laden with personal allegations against Mingee, charging him of bullying his inferiors. Mingee allegedly passed around an image of a snake wearing a fire helmet and claimed it was Hayek. According to the lawsuit, after Blair’s brother died of cancer, Mingee began to refer to the plaintiffs as “the cancer,” and stated that they should be pushed out of the department. Mingee has served on the American Cancer Society’s executive board for six years.
“The one that bothers me the most is the allegation that I would use cancer as a bullying tactic,” said Mingee. “I’ve raised money for the efforts to fight that enemy. I’ve been a fundraiser for the ACS [American Cancer Society] since 2004, and I was instrumental in bringing the ACS Relay for Life to Carp in 2008. I’ve personally been affected by cancer in my family, and anyone who knows me knows that I would never use cancer as a bullying tactic.”
“I don’t want people to think that the fire department is not doing its job,” Mingee went on. “The district has nothing to hide. It’s all public record.”