'Are you kidding me?': Officer alleges discrimination by CHP for his military status
Lt. Col. Christopher Lutz joined the California National Guard in 1996, eventually ending up as a pilot in the Air Guard and deploying to missions fighting wildfires, providing hurricane relief and serving in combat to rescue wounded soldiers overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lutz also is a California Highway Patrol officer with 12 years of service, and says the CHP essentially is destroying his career because of his military obligations. He claims his managers in the CHP’s Oakhurst office in Madera County have denied him time off for military assignments, harassed him with unfounded allegations and driven him to file a lawsuit against his own employer.
“This is odd for me,” Lutz, 45, said in an interview last week after returning from a three-week relief mission to hurricane-ravaged St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. “I’m a team player.
“I’ve devoted my entire life to service of people, I’ve never known anything different. But it was tearing me emotionally apart inside, and I just didn’t know what to do.”
The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court against the CHP and former Commissioner Joe Farrow, accuses the agency of “discrimination, harassment, retaliation because of service in the armed forces,” and says the CHP’s actions violate federal and state laws designed to protect members of the military.
Lutz said he filed the lawsuit only after extended efforts to solve the problems with his supervisors, through equal opportunity complaints and an effort to get the state Department of Labor to intervene. But he says he was rebuffed at every turn, scheduled to work shifts that conflicted with military duty his supervisors were aware of, “mocked” and accused of lying and making up some of the military orders.
Conditions in the office became so toxic, he said, that he was shunned by some officers in the field and required to respond to emergency calls without backup.
The CHP would not talk about the lawsuit, saying in an emailed statement that due “to the pending litigation in this matter, the CHP will decline to comment.” The Guard also declined to comment.
But in court papers the CHP filed seeking dismissal of the Lutz lawsuit, the agency argues that California does not have to obey the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act, a 1994 federal law known as “USERRA” that is aimed at protecting Guard members from job discrimination based on their military duty.
“The law is intended to encourage non-career uniformed service so the United States can enjoy the protection of those services, staffed by qualified people, while maintaining a balance with the needs of private and public employers who also depend on these same individuals,” according to a Department of Defense program called Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, or ESGR.
State lawyers for the CHP argue that the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides “sovereign immunity” to California from the federal law, and that Lutz cannot sue the state for damages under a federal law.
“There is no California law that permits USERRA actions against the CHP,” the agency argued in court filings.
Lutz and his Fresno attorney, Shelley Bryant, contend that stance is ridiculous.
“I find it shocking,” said Bryant, who spent 17 years in the Guard and four on active duty.
Bryant noted in court filings that the ESGR agency issued a March 30 press release saying CHP had signed a “statement of support” for the Guard in its Red Bluff office, and that the statement said the CHP will “fully recognize, honor and comply” with USERRA. The statement also said the CHP “will provide our managers and supervisors with the tools they need to effectively manage employees who serve in the Guard and Reserve.”
Bryant also filed copies of a 2006 state law that says California’s military department “shall comply with the provisions” of USERRA.
Lutz said the state’s position in court goes against what members of the military are routinely told about how they will be treated in their jobs. “That echoes across the state of California,” Lutz said. “It contradicts everything that everyone says and preaches about our support for the Guard of California.”
The CHP’s own website boasts that it is “National Guard and Military Reserves Friendly” and claims that “former military personnel easily fit into the CHP’s workforce.”
That was true for Lutz for a time, he says, when he worked in the Monterey office of the CHP starting in 2005.
But when he moved after six years in Monterey to the much smaller operation in Oakhurst in 2011, he said, everything changed.
Lutz said managers rebuffed his requests for scheduling to work around his required training of one weekend a month and assignments helping provide relief to disaster areas and combat zones.
He says he would provide his training schedules for a year in advance – once he gave supervisors a two-year list of training dates, he says – but still had conflicts.
“They absolutely knew, there’s no surprises on that …,” Lutz said. “I would address management on a religious basis. I’d get, ‘Sorry, we messed up, we lost your schedule.’”
At one point, Lutz said, he was told to give 30 days notice of when he would be required to leave on a mission, something he says is impossible because of the nature of his duty. “I am sure the state of California would love to have 30 days notice of a huge wildfire so they can plan for it,” he said.
Lutz says he was told that he never should have transferred to the Oakhurst office because it has only 19 patrol officers and three working in the office, and that his absences would pose a burden. He acknowledges that since 2016 he has spent about 200 days on military duty, but says he has little say in when he is required to ship out and that the CHP knew he was in the Guard when he was hired.
“As a C-130 aircraft commander, he and his crew flawlessly executed multiple airdrops and transports into hostile areas in efforts to resupply soldiers engaged in combat missions,” his lawsuit says. “He and his crew have also flown several aeromedical missions, transporting critically wounded soldiers from the combat lines to higher medical facilities in efforts to save American lives.”
Lutz, whose wife also is a CHP officer in the Oakhurst office, said the situation “has been a nightmare now going on almost two years,” and that he has found himself being ignored when he calls for backup on some calls.
“Now I’m watching my back for what’s behind me at the office,” he said.