Fremont has agreed to pay millions to a former firefighter who said she was forced out of the city’s fire department for speaking out against the unfair dismissal of a female recruit.
Diane Hendry, who filed a retaliation lawsuit against the city in August 2018, received a $2.6 million payment as part of the settlement, ending a five-year legal battle between the former fire captain and Fremont.
Fremont is still facing two other lawsuits that accuse city officials of retaliatory behavior. In November, the family of the late Fremont Police Capt. Fred Bobbitt filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city for allegedly contributing to his death last year, saying he was harassed by senior officials after refusing to violate state law during negotiations with the Fremont Police Association. The same month, senior Fremont police detective Michael Gebhardt filed a retaliation lawsuit against the city in which he claimed to be targeted for criticizing the Fremont Police Department.
Hendry, who joined the Fremont Fire Department in 1993 and agreed to retire later this year as part of the settlement, sued after experiencing two years of what she calls “a campaign of retaliation” by the leaders of the fire department.
According to the Fremont native, the retaliation began following her role in the investigation of the dismissal of a female recruit in 2016, when Hendry was a division chief of administration. The recruit had been released from the city’s training academy for failing performance tests, but disputed that she had failed the tests.
Hendry and then-Fire Chief Geoff LaTendresse reviewed tapes of the tests and determined that the recruit had indeed passed.
“It was my assignment at the time and I did my job. It was indisputable that this woman passed these tests,” Hendry said in an interview. The recruit was reinstated, and an investigation was launched. The recruit filed a lawsuit against the city and settled in 2017.
As a result, Division Chief Rick Cory was removed from his position as head of the training academy. The deputy chief of training at the time, Chris Shelley, retired before the investigation was complete, and a captain who was an instructor at the academy, Matt Loughran-Smith, retired two days after the results were released, according to court documents.
“I was widely blamed for what happened. I was left out of meetings, people stopped talking when I entered a room, nobody would sit next to me. It got to the point where people began making complaints about me, and I knew I was on the way out,” Hendry said. “I had been part of the city for 25 years; I was promoted up through the ranks and I built all of these relationships and suddenly I was completely shut out. It was horrible.”
Hendry said that she was isolated, removed from certain duties and excluded from critical meetings regarding the recruit’s reinstatement.
In depositions provided to Hendry’s lawyers, her accusations were backed up by two other division chiefs who worked at the department at the time. “It seemed she was blamed for everything,” one said during a deposition.
In 2018, Hendry decided to transfer to the city’s police department on a temporary basis, but said her requests to transfer back to the fire department were never approved, despite a number of positions opening up in the department. Hendry was also still paid by the fire department, rather than the police department, during this time.
A performance evaluation written by LaTendresse in June 2017 said that Hendry was “one of the most dedicated people” and was consistently positive, professional and trustworthy.
“One of the first things we look at with these cases is performance history, but her performance reviews are the most glowing I’ve ever seen,” Hendry’s attorney, Deborah Kochan, said in an interview.
In an email sent in 2020, Jacobson told Hendry that her duties had been reassigned and that her return to the department would be “disruptive” because of reasons that included the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfire season.
In another email sent in response to a further request by Hendry to be transferred in 2021, Jacobson told Hendry that he could not accommodate the request as she had not served in the department for two years.
In a later deposition, Jacobson said that he felt Hendry’s presence on the force would disrupt team cohesiveness if she were transferred back.
“Based on my personal experience of having people that have left organizations and/or brought lawsuits against organizations that they still are members of, it just doesn’t end well,” Jacobson said during the deposition.
Hendry said she believes her gender played a role in how she was treated. “There were five women in Fremont Fire for most of my career. I was hired in 1993, and we didn’t hire another woman until 2013. By that time, the others had retired, so there were only two of us in the department,” Hendry said. “I was actively trying to recruit more women, which was part of my duties, but I think people didn’t like that. There was a perception that we were lowering our standards. But, I also think I was targeted for simply speaking up; for going against the culture.”
Two investigations were launched after Hendry took her concerns to human resources, but she was told that sufficient evidence was not found to support her claims.
During a deposition, former Deputy Chief Amiel Thurston claimed that the issues came down to Hendry isolating herself from members of the department after he became interim chief following LeTendresse’s retirement in 2017.
However, Hendry maintained that she had fully supported Thurston’s appointment and that she had recommended him for the position, which LaTendresse and Assistant City Manager Brian Stott confirmed in court.
“Thurston came up through the ranks with Diane, and they always had a good working relationship,” Kochan said.
“His best friend was one of the people disciplined after the 2016 investigation. After that, he turned against her. I asked him why everything between him and Diane changed, and he realized he needed an answer and came up with this idea that she was jealous of him – and the city ran with it.”
Thurston confirmed in a deposition that Rick Cory was his best friend, and the godfather of one of his children.
A trial date was scheduled for November, but the city reached a settlement with Hendry in early December.
In response to a request for an interview, the city’s communications department said in an email that no one was available to comment as the case involved a “personnel matter.”
The two other lawsuits alleging retaliation by Fremont city officials are still pending. Bobbitt died by suicide on Feb. 21, 2022, at age 54, after serving on the Fremont police force for more than 32 years. He allegedly faced retaliation from former Fremont City Manager Mark Danaj, who was charged with embezzlement last March, and retired Fremont Police Chief Kimberly Petersen.
Bobbitt filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing in March 2021, and a claim with the city in May 2021. That December, an arbiter found that the city’s anti-retaliation policy had been violated. Bobbitt was also mentioned in the retaliation lawsuit filed by Gebhardt.
“I truly thought that when I spoke up, city leadership would step up,” Hendry said. “But these things will happen again. The needle hasn’t moved forward.”