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Ronald Hittle was an at-will employee of the City of Stockton and served as the City’s Fire Chief from 2005 through 2011.

In May 2010, the City received an anonymous letter purporting to be from an employee of the Stockton Fire Department. The letter described Hittle as a “corrupt, racist, lying, religious fanatic who should not be allowed to continue as the Fire Chief of Stockton.” The source of this information was not an anonymous individual, but later established as a high-ranking Fire Department manager.

The City hired an outside independent investigator, Trudy Largent, to investigate various allegations of misconduct. In a 250-page report referencing over 50 exhibits, Largent sustained almost all of the allegations of misconduct against Hittle. This investigation ultimately led to his termination by the City.

Largent’s Report specifically concluded that Hittle: (1) lacked effectiveness and judgment in his ongoing leadership of the Fire Department; (2) used City time and a City vehicle to attend a religious event, and approved on-duty attendance of other Fire Department managers to do the same; (3) failed to properly report his time off; (4) engaged in potential favoritism of certain Fire Department employees based on a financial conflict of interest not disclosed to the City; (5) endorsed a private consultant’s business in violation of City policy; and (6) had potentially conflicting loyalties in his management role and responsibilities, including Hittle’s relationship with the head of the local firefighters’ union.

Hittle sued the City, former City Manager Robert Deis, and former Deputy City Manager Laurie Montes claiming that his termination was in fact the result of unlawful employment discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. Hittle alleged that Deis and Montes terminated his employment as Fire Chief “based upon his religion.”

Defendants moved for summary judgment seeking dismissal of all of Hittle’s claims. Hittle subsequently cross-moved for partial summary judgment as to his federal and state religious discrimination claims on April 1, 2021. On March 1, 2022, the district court denied Hittle’s motion and granted Defendants’ motion as to all of Hittle’s claims. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed in the published case of Hittle v City of Stockton -22-15485 (August 2023).

The panel held that, in analyzing employment discrimination claims under Title VII and the California FEHA, the court may use the McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green burden-shifting framework – 411 U.S. 792 (1973) – under which the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case of discrimination.

The burden then shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the challenged actions.

Finally, the burden returns to the plaintiff to show that the proffered nondiscriminatory reason is pretextual. Alternatively, the plaintiff may prevail on summary judgment by showing direct or circumstantial evidence of discrimination.

Hittle was required to show that his religion was “a motivating factor” in defendants’ decision to fire him with respect to his federal claims, and that his religion was “a substantial motivating factor” with respect to his FEHA claims.

The panel concluded that Hittle failed to present sufficient direct evidence of discriminatory animus in defendants’ statements and the City’s notice of intent to remove him from City service. And Hittle also failed to present sufficient specific and substantial circumstantial evidence of religious animus by defendants. On summary judgment, circumstantial evidence of discrimination “must be ‘specific’ and ‘substantial'”

“The district court’s grant of summary judgment in defendants’ favor was appropriate where defendants’ legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for firing Hittle were sufficient to rebut his evidence of discrimination, and he failed to persuasively argue that these non-discriminatory reasons were pretextual.”