A former Gilbert police commander painted a toxic working environment for women in her lawsuit for wrongful termination.
Carrie Candler claimed she was fired after she complained of discrimination and unfair treatment against her.
Her ongoing suit, filed in October, names the Town of Gilbert, the Police Department, Police Chief Michael Soelberg and former Assistant Police Chief Randy Brice. Brice is now the police chief for Queen Creek.
“The Town unequivocally denies Ms. Candler’s allegations of wrongdoing in the lawsuit. Ms. Candler was treated consistent with the law in every respect, and the litigation process will reveal that her claims are meritless,” according to a statement released by the Town Attorney’s Office. “The Town will reserve any further statements for a court of law.”
Town Council held a closed-door discussion of the case on April 8.
Candler began her job as the only sworn female commander in the department on Jan. 1, 2018, after 15 years with Scottsdale Police, where she rose to the rank of lieutenant. The U.S. Air Force veteran also had worked as a police officer in North Carolina and Mesa, according to her LinkedIn account.
Candler’s attorney Phil Flemming did not return a call for comments.
According to the suit, Candler was a capable leader who cleared out the backlog of critical incidents reviews, initiated policy changes, restructuring and best practices for the police department.
She also had a positive evaluation in 2018 and was rated “exceeds” in her 2019 performance review.
As a commander, her duties included managing all activities of a specific division, participate in the determination and creation of department polices, ensure all policies and procedures are adhered to and help prepare and administer the department budget.
But “some officers resented the leadership role of a female,” according to the suit.
The suit singled out an incident in 2018 when a K9 officer who also was then the union vice president circumvented the chain of command and complained directly to Soelberg and the deputy town manager about Candler’s implementation plans for the unit.
The K9 officer was identified as Officer Steve Gilbert, who was arrested and charged last year with tempering with a public record, false testimony and making a false public record.
Charges were eventually dropped but Gilbert Police are conducting an internal investigation. A police spokeswoman in March stated the investigation is still ongoing and did not respond to an April 13 question asking if the investigation has been completed.
In June 2018, Candler said she was called to a meeting with Soelberg and Assistant Chief Jeff Thompson.
Thompson resigned quietly from the department last December and voluntarily surrendered his peace officer certification following a misconduct investigation, according to media reports.
In that June meeting, Candler learned that the union vice president, Officer Gilbert, had compiled and submitted a list of allegations against her as grievances about her leadership.
Soelberg placed Candler on a Plan of Action to improve her performance as a result of the union’s grievances, the suit said.
Candler maintained the Gilbert Police Leadership Association’s list of grievances and Soelberg’s Plan of Action would not have occurred if she were a man in similar circumstances.
Four months later in October, “Officer Gilbert and Sgt. Jason Roman, then-union president, acted with bias toward plaintiff based on her sex and created division and hostility among the personnel and leadership,” the lawsuit said.
The suit claimed the two men lied to union members that “multiple officers” had complained about Candler when “in fact, those Association leaders had persuaded only one person, Officer Joseph Rohr, to initiate a complaint against” her.
Rohr, with the help of the union, complained that Candler targeted him for performance inquiries and he asked that she be removed from the force.
According to the suit, a thorough investigation into Rohr’s complaint “fully exonerated” Candler of any wrongdoing.
The suit claimed the union later in 2018 conducted a survey of its members “that was biased to ‘elicit a negative response’” about Candler, citing notes by Thompson.
Thompson “acknowledged to plaintiff that the survey comments largely reflected rumors and innuendo, not specific concerns, and that many negative comments related to matters where the investigation had fully vindicated plaintiff’s actions.”
According to Candler, she was informed by then-Cmdr. and now Assistant Chief Mike Angstead in fall 2019 that Officer Gilbert told him “he did not want to work with a female in the K9 Unit, as they were interviewing to select an officer for that position.”
Angstead “expressed concern when a female officer was selected for the K9 Unit position, acknowledging that females were subjected to unequal work conditions.”
Candler claimed Soelberg and Brice condoned and tolerated unfair treatment of her and permitted “disparate treatment of male commanders and male employees compared with females to permeate the workplace.”
The suit further claimed that criticisms of Candler’s performance for her alleged communication style and abrasiveness would not have been the basis of complaints, grievances or a Plan of Action if Candler had been a man.
Candler said she met separately with Soelberg and Brice in January 2020 to discuss her concerns “that she was being unfairly criticized and targeted for unfounded allegations by officers who did not want to work under a female commander.”
Soelberg and Brice, however, failed to take appropriate actions to prevent bias in the workplace, which undermined Candler’s authority, the suit said.
And, they failed to take appropriate actions to support Candler’s authority and leadership actions, the suit added.
The suit also claimed Candler disclosed misconduct of certain officers that she reasonably believed violated state law but no actions were taken to investigate or take corrective actions.
After two years and four months on the job, Candler was fired on April 23, 2020. She claimed her termination was “without notice and without a pre-termination or post-termination hearing to protect her due-process rights.”
The Town in trying to dismiss the suit in part argued Candler was not entitled to a notice and was an at-will employee as stated in her Nov. 28, 2017 contract. Two years later, the Town eliminated sworn police officers as at-will employees.
The town’s outside legal counsel Aaron Arnson also argued that Candler failed to prove a viable claim in that she didn’t show there was damage to her reputation when she was fired, which would hinder her ability to find work.
Candler’s attorney filed a notice of claim in July for $822,000 to compensate her for irreparable harm to her reputation, lost income and benefits, reduced professional opportunities and emotional distress. The town rejected the claim, which led to the lawsuit.
Candler in her suit was seeking damages, including attorney fees, back pay, lost benefits and reinstatement of her position with senior and benefits.
The suit also wanted compensatory damages for Candler’s emotional distress and “damages to her reputation.”
Candler is asking for a jury trial.
The court in January has set a number of deadlines for the case, including all parties and their attorneys must meet in person to engage in good-faith settlement talks no later than Aug. 27 and that expert dispositions must be completed no later than Oct. 1.
A telephone status conference of the case was scheduled for Dec. 2.