CLAY SPRINGS-PINEDALE — Jason Craven, former coordinator of the disbanded Wildland Division of the Clay Springs-Pinedale Fire District, (CPFD) has sued the fire chief, its district board and members of the board at the time for various alleged violations of federal and state employment law, for defamation and other alleged wrongdoing. Craven claims that for the last 14 years he had worked as a volunteer firefighter there and was hired as a paid employee in 2013.
The CPFD created the Wildland Division which fought wildland-type fires with a crew and/or equipment in areas outside of Clay Springs and Pinedale, and be compensated for the service. But the CPFD board said that it made no financial sense to maintain the division and ended up dissolving it. In March 2019, Fire Chief Robert Garvin notified Craven that he was terminated because the division he was coordinating no longer existed.
Craven brought suit in the Navajo County Superior Court on Dec. 9, 2019 claiming among other things, there was an ulterior and improper motive directed at him for the decision to disband the division.
He is represented by the law firm of Shields Petitti PLC of Phoenix.
The 10-count suit seeks damages for employment law violations, specifically under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, Arizona’ s Minimum Wage Act, wrongful discharge, defamation, doing things “against public policy,” retaliating against him for just speaking his mind, and other issues. Craven clams that Garvin gave the board “false and misleading information” about the Wildland Division’s financial picture so that the board would dissolve it, thus causing Craven to lose his job.
Board members were sued in their “official capacity,” meaning they are not alleged to have done anything that would affect them as individuals, but Craven sued Chief Garvin both in his official capacity and as an individual. The defendant board members are listed as Bob Quackenbush, Mike Neill, David Flores, Joe Holyoak and Sue Hileman.
The defendants are represented by the law firm of Barrett & Matura PC of Scottsdale. Defendants immediately had the case transferred to the U.S. District Court for Arizona through a proceeding known as “removal.” Federal law says that if a lawsuit suit contains “issues and claims arising under federal law,” and the amount in question is at least $75,000, federal courts can remove it from state court and can hear it. Craven did not state a dollar figure he claims.
The case was indeed removed to the US District Court in Phoenix, and the defendants denied everything in their answer, except that the CPFD is a fire district, has a board of directors and that Garvin was the fire chief at the time in question. They ask the court to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, enter judgment in defendants’ favor, award to the defendants their costs and attorneys’ fees, and “other relief deemed appropriate by the Court.”
At the heart of the case is Craven’s allegations that he was mistreated and retaliated against because he voiced concerns over Chief Garvin’s management. Craven’s suit says that he “raised legitimate good faith concerns about Defendant Garvin’s gross mismanagement of District funds,” like allegedly not paying employees for work or for time spent in training. Craven also urges that Garvin defamed him by called him an alcoholic in front of others and by telling a meeting of thirty people in January 2019 that Carven “won’t come out at night because he’s got to suck on his bottle, but he’s good help the next day.” Craven reportedly retorted, “They’re cans.” according to court records.
In April 2021, defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which is a device to end a suit before trial. Court rules state that a party can prevail on such a motion if the material facts in a case are not disputed and the law says that the moving party should win. But US District Court Senior Judge Robyn O. Silver ruled generally in favor of Craven, finding that there are facts in dispute that a jury must decide.
For example, Craven claims that the disbanding of the wildlife division was to boot him out of the organization for complaining about the chief. Defendants claim that the division was disbanded because it made no financial sense to keep it.
But another firefighter came forward with a recording purported to be of Chief Garvin talking about dissolving the division. “A lot of it was (because of Craven’s) attitude. I mean he’s threatening the Board members, threatening me a lot,” and that the decision to dissolve the division “really, basically, came down to (Craven’s) threats...Moneywise it wasn’t that big a difference,” wrote Judge Silver in her order.
Further the court wrote, “When asked if the Wildland Division would ever comeback, Chief Garvin stated “[a]s soon as you get me a red card — or an engine card,’ meaning as soon as there was another individual with the qualifications to run the Wildland Division, the Fire District would reestablish it,” Judge Silver stated. Because there is a material dispute about why the division was dissolved, a jury must figure out that issue.
Regarding the defamation claims, after analyzing legal precedent, Silver found that a jury must determine the “suck on a bottle,” issue. Truth is a defense in a defamation suit; therefor, if what Chief Garvin said about Craven is actually true, there’s no liability.
Regarding an unpaid wages issue, in 2018, the district bought a fire truck in Illinois and Craven went there to drive it back. Because he stopped along the way back to Arizona to visit his daughter, he wasn’t paid for the return trip. He claims 36 hours in pay for that; defendants urge it was agreed that Craven would not to get paid for that. The judge said a jury must figure out that issue as well.
Defendants won on Craven’s claim under the Arizona Employment Protection Act. The judge said that the disbanding of the Wildland Division doesn’t count as a termination under the way that Arizona law is written. Also, she ruled in favor of Chief Garvin with regard to Craven’s allegation that Garvin interfered with Craven’s employment, finding instead that Garvin “acted within the scope of his authority as a management representative” under Arizona law, the judge wrote. The other claims will proceed to trial.
The court set a jury trial for Feb. 8, 2022.