Mask-Wearing Cal Fire Pilot’s Suit on Thin Ice

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A Cal Fire pilot who was disciplined after flying a helicopter in a gorilla mask on Halloween cannot sue the state for due process violations, but a federal judge ruled he can pursue breach of contract claims.
     Daniel Clark sued the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, in October 2013, two years after he wore a gorilla mask while steering a chopper full of recruits from Los Gatos to San Jose on Halloween.
     Clark says he had “full visibility” while wearing the mask and that the trip occurred “without incident.” Following an investigation, Cal Fire disciplined Clark with a suspension and dock in pay for violating agency safety protocols and Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
     The pilot says the state tricked him into giving up his rights by convincing him to a sign a settlement agreement under false pretenses. The state also never fully removed his disciplinary records and delayed paying him lost wages, he claims.
     In an Aug. 19 ruling, U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam Jr. dismissed with prejudice Clark’s claims that Cal Fire and its officials violated his due process rights under the Constitution and California Firefighters Bill of Rights.
     Because Clark released the state from liability when he signed the settlement agreement, his true claim is for breach of contract — not due process violations, Gilliam wrote in his 10-page ruling.
     “It is well settled that where the property interest in a procedural due process claim is a contractual claim for wages from a state agency, a post-deprivation breach of contract suit in state court provides adequate process,” Gilliam wrote.
     Clark’s settlement agreement was only with the state. Therefore, he cannot pursue breach of contract claims against individual defendants including Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott, the judge ruled.
     Gilliam dismissed all of Clark’s claims with prejudice, except his breach of contract claim against the state and defamation claims against individual Cal Fire officials — provided he can back up his claims with evidence, Gilliam said.
     Clark’s attorney, Arash Khosrowshahi of Sacramento, said he is still discussing how to proceed with his client.
     The pilot must file an amended complaint by Sept. 18.

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