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Laura Seitz, Deseret News, File

Commission overturns demotion of S.L. battalion chief

By Katie McKellar  |  Posted May 19th, 2017 @ 8:03pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — Martha Ellis, the first woman to hold the rank of battalion chief in the Salt Lake City Fire Department, has won her claim that she was wrongly demoted last year.

The Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission on Thursday overturned the demotion, restoring Ellis to her rank of battalion chief.

Ellis, a veteran firefighter of more than 20 years, was demoted from battalion chief to captain in May 2016 by then-Assistant Chief Robert McMicken.

The demotion, McMicken claimed, stemmed from Ellis having an "apparent lack of engagement with (her) current assignment, lack of ownership of (her) job responsibilities, an inability or unwillingness to follow instructions, and a lack of respect for (her) chain of command."

The commission's ruling comes after two days of testimony from McMicken, now the department's chief deputy, as well as Ellis and five witnesses.

It also comes two months after Ellis was fired from the fire department for not returning to work on March 1 as ordered after six months' leave for mental health issues that resulted from the demotion, according to her attorney, Jaqualin Friend Peterson.

Ellis said she made a "good faith" effort to return to work, but the fire department didn't provide her with requested accommodations, including a brief period of training to ease her back into emergency response work.

"Naturally, I am thrilled with the outcome," Ellis said in a statement Friday. "Despite substantial evidence supporting my claim, the city has continued to double down on the inconsistent position that the three chiefs, former Chief (Brian) Dale, Fire Chief (Karl) Lieb and Deputy Chief McMicken, have taken against my character. This has felt like nothing more than a personal attack on me and my efforts to advance within the Salt Lake City Fire Department."

Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, said the city had no comment on the matter Friday.

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Before Ellis was fired in March, she had requested a "reasonable degree of separation" from Lieb and McMicken, who she had recently filed claims against for whistleblower retaliation and gender-based harassment, discrimination and retaliation, which she says led to a hostile work environment

Those claims are now pending in federal court.

"I will continue to maintain my faith in the judicial system and exercise my legal rights to the fullest extent as we move forward with my claims in federal court," Ellis said.

The suit claims Ellis was retaliated against after she uncovered information in March 2015 that suggested the fire department was knowingly allowing members of its executive team to engage in personal activities on city time, without requiring any accounting of time or reduction in pay.

Ellis also claims she was retaliated against for not endorsing the city's plan to build concrete bike lanes on 300 South — which narrowed the road out of compliance with fire codes — and for not covering up the lack of smoke detectors at a fire station that caught fire in 2015.

In addition to reinstatement, Ellis is seeking payment of lost salary and employment benefits, and damages at double the cost of the lawsuit and attorney fees, according to the claim.

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