Fired Fire Rescue division chief Hoch seeks name-clearing hearing

Former Palm Beach County Fire Rescue Division Chief Chris Hoch, fired in January after he was accused by a female subordinate of sexual harassment and retaliation, has requested a “name-clearing” hearing, according to documents provided to The Palm Beach Post.

“Mr. Hoch also requests adequate notice as to what exactly he is clearing his name of and what allegations have been made against him specifically,” his attorney, Sarah Mourer, wrote to Interim Fire Rescue Chief Michael Mackey and county managers on Tuesday. Her letter said Hoch had been refused an answer when he previously asked why he was being fired.

Chief Assistant County Attorney David Ottey responded, writing to Mourer that: “Your client, Mr. Hoch, was an at-will employee, so there is no legal requirement that he be provided a reason for his termination. Hence, none was given.”

In firing Hoch on Jan. 25, Mackey told him he was entitled to a name-clearing hearing if he requested one within five days of his termination. Mourer’s request on Hoch’s behalf was made in time. A hearing date has not been set.

Hoch was fired more than a month after Fire-Rescue Capt. Amanda Vomero filed suit against the county and Fire Rescue, accusing Hoch of sexually harassing her and retaliating against her when she complained in 2015. His termination also came nearly a year after he received a written reprimand based on the same complaint by Vomero. Hoch’s reprimand was for violating county policy against discrimination, harassment and retaliation in the workplace.

Vomero’s lawsuit, one of at least three alleging misconduct by men in Fire Rescue, has been at the center of an ongoing department scandal during which Fire Rescue Chief Jeffrey Collins and a deputy chief, Thomas Tolbert, have resigned.

In one of the other lawsuits, Collins is accused by Vomero’s supervisor of retaliating against him when he sought to investigate allegations of sexual harassment by another female firefighter and when he supported Vomero during the county Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation of her complaint against Hoch.

Vomero’s lawsuit alleges that Tolbert joined Hoch in ridiculing her.

Efforts to reach Tolbert have been unsuccessful. Both Collins and Hoch have denied the allegations against them.

The county is bracing for potential lawsuits from Hoch, Tolbert and Collins, who later rescinded his resignation, which he said was offered under duress. The former chief said he wants his job back.

Meanwhile, Mackey, promoted to interim chief the same day Collins resigned, has attempted to move Fire Rescue beyond the scandal, naming replacements for Hoch and Tolbert.

Mourer’s law firm, Boca Raton-based The Berman Law Group, represents Hoch and Collins. The law firm has scheduled a press conference at 10 a.m. Monday to provide updates.

The county has not said publicly why it accepted the resignations of Collins and Tolbert, nor has it said why Hoch was fired.

Since Vomero filed her lawsuit, County Administrator Verdenia Baker has said she would have “zero tolerance” for harassment or retaliation by county employees, but when asked whether Collins was pushed to resign, she has refused to offer details.

She did tell The Palm Beach Post, “I am looking to move in a different direction as I talked about cultures changing in our community. This, I think, was the appropriate time to make the change, and we are moving on.”

Collins said Baker forced him out as part of a “political agenda,” an allegation Baker has denied.

Mourer said her client does not know why he was fired.

“Again, Mr. Hoch asks why he was terminated and upon what information?” Mourer wrote to to Mackey.

She asked Mackey and county officials to “advise the definition of a ‘Name-Clearing Hearing,’ its procedures, purpose, and effects.”

Ottey said the county “routinely offers a name clearing hearing, though not legally required to do so when there is no stated reason for termination.”

Ottey reminded Mourer that her client’s personnel file is a public record.

“Therefore, to the extent that he would like his personnel file to include a statement regarding his employment or termination, the county is providing him with that opportunity,” Ottey wrote. “With respect to the procedures, on a date to be determined, the former employee (and representation, if any) meets with the Department Head, Human Resources Director and a representative of the County Attorney’s Office in the presence of a court reporter and state whatever they deem relevant regarding their employment and termination. The transcript of the meeting is subsequently placed in the former employee’s personnel file. The former employee also has the option of presenting his/her own written statement to be placed in the personnel file in lieu of attending a name clearing hearing.”

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission review of Vomero’s allegations determined that “EEOC is unable to conclude that the information obtained establishes violations of the statutes.”

Hoch has pointed to that determination in denying Vomero’s allegations, though the EEOC also wrote that its determination “does not certify that the respondent is in compliance with the statutes. No finding is made as to any other issues that might be construed as having been raised by this charge.”

A county investigation found that Hoch “admits to repeating sexually oriented rumors” about Vomero and that “there is sufficient information to conclude that an offensive work environment exists within Fire Rescue.”

“Of particular concern,” the county investigative report states, “is the claimed lack of knowledge of the discriminatory behavior. Much of the alleged discrimination and retaliation and all of the substantiated discriminatory and retaliatory behavior occurred within the administrative office suite and involved high ranking administrative officers.”

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