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No Woman Need Apply

Actions speak louder than words when it comes to a gender discrimination lawsuit against the SLC Fire Department.


  • John Taylor

The executive team at the Salt Lake City Fire Department is a good old boys club and Martha Ellis didn't fit in. When push came to shove, there was no one at City Hall to protect her from trumped up allegations.

Ellis' education, training and hard work led her to become the first—and only—female fire marshal at the SLCFD. But her energy and attention to detail apparently made the top brass feel insecure. The 22-year fire department veteran was passed over for promotion several times despite her superior qualifications, then was demoted after filing a discrimination claim and ultimately fired.

Salt Lake City's Civil Service Commission found that Ellis was wrongly demoted and should be reinstated. The commission's report scolded fire department brass regarding the lack of evidence and apparent manufactured allegations in Ellis' demotion to captain.

It also found that then-Assistant Fire Chief Robert McMicken was "looking for reasons" to discipline Ellis. The 49-page document said the seven allegations brought against her "appear as an attempt to manufacture misconduct and alleged failure of performance to justify disciplinary action, when there were no performance issues."

Ellis holds a master's degree in homeland security from the Naval Postgraduate School and has a graduate certificate in conflict resolution and mediation from the University of Utah. She also was one of four recipients of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government fire service fellowship awards in 2012.

But despite the Civil Service Commission's findings, former Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski did not intervene as Ellis was demoted, fired and then mired in litigation, after she sued the city for gender discrimination and retaliation.

Biskupski, however, did make use of Ellis' predicament in her 2014 campaign against former SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, who was vulnerable after sexual harassment charges surfaced in the police department.

On several occasions during the campaign, Biskupski derided Becker on gender equality issues and referred to a female firefighter (Martha Ellis) who had filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging gender discrimination. Biskupski's campaign promised a safe and fair work environment for women. But actions speak louder than words.

SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall, like her predecessor, has been silent on Ellis' claims of gender discrimination as her case remains mired in litigation. Mendenhall's administration says they take gender discrimination claims very seriously. But in the case of Martha Ellis, those words disappear into thin air.

Meanwhile, the City Attorney's Office continues to drag out Ellis' complaint in U.S. District Court for Utah.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, who is a civil rights attorney, said City Hall's treatment of Ellis is "fundamentally unethical."

"Nobody (at the city) is asking, what's the right thing to do," Anderson said in a City Weekly interview. What's just as bad, he noted, is that taxpayers are picking up the bill so the city attorney can continue to make Ellis' life difficult.

"Who's paying Martha Ellis' legal bill?" he asked. "She's a total hero and she's being treated like shit by the city."

At the center of the dispute, according to Ellis, was her criticism of some on the department's executive team for allegedly engaging in personal, for-profit activities on the city's time, along with her complaints about the design of Fire Station 2 that lacked smoke detectors and caught fire, as well as the installation of bicycle lanes on 300 South that yielded a roadway narrower than required by the state and city fire code.

She was demoted on May 3, 2016. Adding to the humiliation, Ellis said, was on the day of her demotion, she was escorted out of the Public Safety Building as her peers looked on, in what she described as something of a "perp walk."

The difficult working conditions, discipline and demotion took a toll on Ellis. "I can't begin to explain the despair," she said.

A psychologist provided by the city told her to take an extended period of time off because she was suffering from anxiety and depression after the demotion. After four months of disability leave and six months of unpaid leave, Ellis was fired. She lost her livelihood and the career she had dedicated her life to.

"I was sitting there in the twilight zone with no exit," she said of the aftermath. "I was not available to my daughter or my husband because I was so consumed."

The one-time fire marshal said she experienced cascading adverse impacts. "It's this cloud that's so pervasive in your life. I'm still experiencing the ramifications of it," Ellis said. "Thank God I have a family that loves me and a good psychologist."

What sticks in her craw is that the men whom she alleges ran her out based on superfluous claims, McMicken and Fire Chief Karl Lieb—who was deputy chief at the time—were left in top positions at the fire department. Former Chief Bryan Dale has since retired. Both Dale and Lieb were hired to the chief's position from within the ranks of the SLCFD.

  • Courtesy Photo

Inside City Hall Politics
Among the dynamics at play, according to insiders, is that it is much easier for the mayor to do nothing, rather than upset the fire department management by following the Civil Service Commission's recommendations and reinstating Ellis to her former rank.

"It looks like they circled the wagons," said a source close to City Hall, who wished to remain unnamed. The Biskupski administration determined to support its fire department executive team at the expense of Ellis, who became collateral damage, the source said.

But in January 2020, Salt Lake City's elected a new mayor who was not part of the fiasco. And the city attorney works at the pleasure of the mayor who is solely responsible for review of the office's legal work (with the exception of City Council matters).

In an email response to City Weekly, Mayor Mendenhall's office said it could not respond to questions concerning any case it litigation, including that of Martha Ellis.

Beyond that, the mayor's office would not say when the city attorney's case load had been reviewed by the mayor to weed out cases that should be settled. The mayor's office also did not respond when asked if there had been any recent performance audit of the City Attorney's Office nor did it respond to a second request by City Weekly for an interview with Mayor Mendenhall regarding the functions of the City Attorney's Office. (The first request was denied.)

Deeda Seed, a former chief of staff for Mayor Anderson, as well as a former member of the Salt Lake City Council, said people who are not lawyers can be finessed or managed by the City Attorney's Office. Although Anderson reviewed cases being litigated by the City Attorney, Seed said most mayors do not.

"It's a bit of a fiefdom," she said of the City Attorney's Office. "They can be selective on how they present information to elected officials—and that does sway how things unfold."

But Seed added that it's possible that during Mendenhall's first year in office, which was marked by an earthquake, a storm with hurricane-force winds that toppled hundreds of trees and the pandemic, Ellis' case might not be on the mayor's radar.

"It's like juggling plates," Seed said of myriad matters the mayor must address. "There are a thousand issues that need attention. Things like (the Ellis case) can easily get cast aside."

And so, the former fire marshal's case remains floundering somewhere in the sausage grinder of legal actions at the whim of an attorney who works in the City Attorney's Office or who is under contract and may have little incentive or motivation to settle, short of complete victory for the municipality.

In court documents, the city attorney argues that Ellis' claim should be dismissed because it contains no facts, only conclusions. In other words, the Civil Service Commission's findings should not be evidence of wrongdoing.

"While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations," wrote John E. Delaney for the City Attorney's Office. "Thus, threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice."

Pushing that argument aside, Ellis' attorneys recently filed a motion for partial summary judgment asking the court to accept the Civil Service Commission's findings as factual. If the court were to agree, a future jury would be instructed that "it may conclude without considering additional evidence that Salt Lake City discriminated against Ellis in violation of her Equal Protection Rights when it demoted her because the city did not have a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason to support its actions."

After Dale demoted Ellis on May 3, 2016, he determined she could no longer work in an administrative position and ordered her to return as a firefighter. Because she had not seen action on firetrucks for more than 13 years, Ellis requested a training refresher and a physical, as outlined in the department union's directive. She also asked for a gradual break-in period before she went full time, as recommended by psychologist.

Those requests were denied by Lieb, according to documents.

On Feb. 17, 2017, Ellis applied for a third 90-day leave, accompanied by a letter from her health-care provider. Lieb denied that request, noting that in 2016, from May 3 to Aug. 27—before her unpaid leave—she had been on disability leave. If she didn't return by March 1, 2017, Lieb said, she would be fired. At the point, she had taken a total of 10 months' leave, partly because she had severely injured her hand.

Ellis attempted to negotiate with the city's human resources manager, Melissa Green, seeking accommodations through the Americans with Disabilities Act regarding her mental state. On March 6, 2017, Green sent an email explaining that she would have to take a position outside the fire department. Ellis balked and asked for more details.

On March 14, 2017, Green wrote to Ellis: "[B]ased on your current work restrictions, the fire department is unable to provide a reasonable accommodation that would enable you to return to work in your position of fire captain."

On March 17, 2017, Ellis again expressed her frustration regarding the suggestion that she work elsewhere. Options included golf course groundskeeper and Youth City teen specialist. Later that day, Lieb fired her.

“I felt obligated to make my concerns public, as not doing so would be in direct conflict with my responsibilities as a public servant.” - —Martha Ellis - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • “I felt obligated to make my concerns public, as not doing so would be in direct conflict with my responsibilities as a public servant.”—Martha Ellis

Litany of Discrimination
Her disputes with top managers go back to 2014. On Sept. 30 of that year, according to Ellis' lawsuit, Dale and Lieb passed over her to promote a less-experienced, less-educated male counterpart: McMicken—the same person who was later dressed down by the Civil Service Commission for "manufacturing" evidence against Ellis.

On Nov. 25, 2014, Ellis filed a charge of discrimination and retaliation based on gender with the EEOC (the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

Immediately after that, Ellis was removed from her position as the fire marshal—a position she had held since 2009—and reassigned to division chief of logistics. Ellis saw it as a demotion, but she retained her battalion chief rank.

In June 2016, several weeks after her demotion, Ellis filed a notice of claim at City Hall alleging fraud, state fire code violations, cover-ups and retaliation by top brass in the department. Ellis alleged she was demoted after raising concerns, including allegations aimed at members of the department's executive team engaging in personal activities on city time.

On March 16, 2016, The Salt Lake Tribune ran a story highlighting then-Chief Dale's affiliation with the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED). While he was deputy chief, Dale said he taught classes at IAED conferences, earning $20,000 to $30,000 annually. As deputy chief, the city paid him a salary of $110,116 and benefits worth $11,116.

On May 28, 2016—three months after the Tribune story on his affiliation with IAED—Dale said he would retire in October of that year after serving 16 months as chief.

Looking back, Ellis said filing complaints against the fire department and Salt Lake City was her last option after years of attempting to work through the municipality's system.

"Every effort was made to resolve these matters at the lowest possible level," she said. "Having exhausted all other options, I felt obligated to make my concerns public, because not doing so would be in direct conflict with my responsibilities as a public servant."

There are well over 300 firefighters in the SLCFD. Only seven of them are women. None are in executive management positions.

The Slow Burn of Martha Ellis' lawsuit

November 2014—Ellis files a complaint with the EEOC alleging gender discrimination after being passed over the third time for promotion.

May 2016—Ellis is demoted to captain.

June 2016—Ellis files notice of claim with Salt Lake City, signaling her intention to file suit.

October 2016—Ellis files suit in federal court claiming gender discrimination and retaliation.

March 2017—Ellis is fired.

May 2017—The Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission rules that Ellis' demotion was unwarranted and she should be returned to the rank of battalion chief. Its formal report came out in November. Mayor Jackie Biskupski does not act on the ruling.

October 2020—Ellis' attorneys file for partial summary judgment that would direct a jury to consider the Civil Service Commission's ruling as factual and that it could conclude Salt Lake City discriminated against Ellis in violation of her Equal Protection Rights.