Hittle v. City of Stockton, 76 F.4th 877 (9th Cir. 2023)

Ronald Hittle served as the City’s Fire Chief before he was fired (following an investigation by an outside investigator) because he lacked effectiveness and judgment in his ongoing leadership of the Fire Department; used City time and a City vehicle to attend a religious event and approved on-duty attendance of other Fire Department managers; failed to properly report his time off; engaged in potential favoritism of certain employees; endorsed a private consultant’s business in violation of City policy; and had potentially conflicting loyalties in his management role and responsibilities.  Hittle sued the City under Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), alleging his termination was “based upon his religion.”  Hittle pointed to what he characterized as “direct evidence of discriminatory animus” based on a comment made by the Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes that Hittle was part of a “Christian coalition” and part of a “church clique” in the Fire Department.  However, the evidence showed that Montes was repeating what was written in anonymous letters sent to the City and that the comment did not originate with Montes herself.  The Court noted that such remarks were in any event “more akin to ‘stray remarks’ that have been held insufficient to establish discrimination.”  Further, based on the investigation, the Court held that defendants’ legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for firing Hittle were not mere pretext for religious discrimination.  See also Crowe v. Wormuth, 74 F.4th 1011 (9th Cir. 2023) (police officer’s Title VII sexual orientation discrimination claim was properly dismissed on summary judgment despite homophobic language used by another officer who had participated in investigation into plaintiff’s misconduct).