San Diego Fire Sued For Gender Discrimination

A firefighter recruit who washed out of an academy class due to an injury, and then failed a mandatory run at the start her second academy, has filed suit against the City of San Diego alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation.

Nicole Pappas, 31, filed suit in San Diego County Superior Court on September 13, 2017 alleging four counts of state law employment discrimination. Pappas, who now works as an EMT for American Medical Response in San Diego, broke her leg while in her first fire academy in 2015. At the start of her second academy in 2016, she failed to complete a three-mile run in 24 minutes and was terminated.

Between the two classes, Pappas cooperated with an EEO investigation into harassment she and others endured during her training. She alleges her termination from the second academy was retaliation because the three-mile run requirement had been eliminated.

From the complaint:

  • Female recruits were forced to share a locker room with the male recruits.
  • Pappas was frequently harassed by male recruits during periods where locker room use was required (i.e., changing clothes for different academy exercises.)
  • Pappas always wore at least a sports bra and shorts because she did not feel comfortable changing completely in front of the male recruits.
  • Comments were made about Pappas’ body (i.e., skinny body, or fat butt); drawings of penises were taped in the locker room for display, e-mailed to her by City employees, and posted on social media by them.
  • Pappas was harassed in the presence of fire department supervisors during training and drills.
  • During runs one recruit shoulder checked her and tried to knock Pappas to the ground.
  • During drills, Pappas was pushed and shoved by male recruits.
  • On other occasions male recruits falsely belittled Pappas in front of instructors.
  • On another occasion an instructor belittled a male recruit because Pappas, and not the male recruit, knew the answer to a question.
  • The instructor said: “You’re going to let a girl answer the question and get it right before you,” the instructor chided the male recruit.
  • Pappas successfully passed the run and was doing well in her class work and operational field tests. However, on December 23, 2015, Pappas fractured her leg during the academy’s rigorous physical exercises and was forced to leave that academy.
  • The City told Pappas that, because she was a recruit in good standing, she could return to another fire fighter academy after her leg healed.
  • Before Pappas’s leg healed, she became aware that an internal EEO investigation had commenced regarding the harassment Pappas and others had endured during the 80th
  • Pappas appeared before a fact finding panel as a witness. The City has not produced the results of the fact finding despite a Public Records Act request.
  • While Pappas was healing, she ran into fire fighter Jason Rivera at a bar.
  • Rivera, who professed to have some knowledge of the sexual harassment fact finding regarding harassment Pappas endured during the 80th academy, told Pappas: “you will never be a fire fighter in this City.”
  • Pappas was told before she returned to the academy by a City human resources employee that the fire department had been instructed to eliminate the three-mile run because it was unnecessarily discriminatory to female recruits and not sufficiently job related.
  • After Pappas’s leg healed, she was admitted to the 82nd fire fighter academy which was set to begin on October 1 ,2016.
  • However, despite the City’s Human Resources Department’s directive to eliminate the three-mile run, the fire department made completing that run in less that 24 minutes mandatory for entry to the academy.
  • Pappas, who was later diagnosed with an infection requiring antibiotics, did not pass the run before the 82nd academy started. Pappas was then terminated.
  • The City has since eliminated the three-mile run as part of the fire fighter academy.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Pappas v San Diego _506298656721

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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