San Francisco Firefighters Allege Reverse Sex Discrimination

Eight San Francisco firefighters who were transferred following allegations of sexual harassment at their firehouse in 2016, have filed suit claiming they were discriminated and retaliated against.

Battalion Chief Samson Lai, Deputy Chief Raymond Guzman, Captain John Rocco, Lieutenant David Thompson, Lieutenant Michael Thompson, Lieutenant Luis Ibarra-Rivera, FF Richard Miles and FF Daniel Molloy filed suit yesterday in San Francisco County Superior Court. All were transferred following an investigation into the harassment of a female firefighter assigned to Station 2.

The firefighters allege that the female firefighter was having an affair with a battalion chief at the station, and that he arranged her assignment. The woman claims firefighters began harassing her as soon as she arrived, urinating on her bed and smearing feces in her bathroom. The firefighters were transferred after the fire department completed its investigation into the woman’s allegation.

The firefighters deny any involvement with harassment, and claim the department improperly punished them rather than address what in essence was an improper relationship between the battalion chief and the female firefighter. The battalion chief, Sam Romero, was named as a defendant in the suit.

From the complaint:

  • Plaintiffs are male SFFD firefighters who, at relevant times, were assigned to SFFD’s Station 2, in San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood.
  • Their positions range from rank and file Firefighters, Lieutenants, Captains, Battalion Chief, and Deputy Chief, who have worked for the SFFD from as few as 15 to as many as 30 years.
  • Station 2 was a choice assignment, as it was one of the city’s busiest firehouses.
  • Plaintiffs were excellent employees with exemplary performance records both as firefighters and coworkers.
  • Defendant ROMERO was one of Station 2’s three Battalion Chiefs, the station’s top position.
  • It was widely known throughout the SFFD that ROMERO was in a relationship with Suzanne Montes, a female SFFD firefighter.
  • ROMERO and Montes’ affair dated back to when Montes was a reserve firefighter and ROMERO was Captain at SFFD’s Station 13. Reserve firefighters are volunteers not employed by the SFFD who lack the training of full-fledged SFFD firefighters.
  • ROMERO allowed Montes privileges well-beyond what was safe or appropriate for a reserve firefighter, including but not limited to, allowing her to spend the night in the fire station and participate in training drills with full-fledged SFFD firefighters.
  • ROMERO and Montes’ affair and preferential treatment continued when the SFFD hired Montes as a Firefighter. For example, despite Montes initially working in a different battalion than ROMERO, ROMERO frequently called officers who oversaw Montes and told them to assign her to premium pay positions.
  • Montes began working at Station 2, where ROMERO was Battalion Chief, i.e. Chief of the station, in or around January of 2016.
  • After working only a few shifts at Station 2, Montes filed a complaint with the San Francisco Department of Human Resources (DHR) falsely accusing Station 2 firefighters of harassing her based on her gender.
  • Montes continued to file false gender harassment and retaliation claims against Station 2 firefighters throughout the remainder of her time at that station.
  • Prior to this, none of these firefighters had ever received any complaints regarding their treatment of women, despite having worked with many female firefighters throughout their careers.
  • In fact, two Plaintiffs have sisters who are SFFD firefighters, one of whom was the former head of the United Fire Service Women of San Francisco.
  • In fact, it was Plaintiffs who received differential treatment based on gender due to ROMERO and Montes’ affair.
  • Firefighters observed (and reported) that Montes did not sleep in her own bed in the dorm at the firehouse, an observation made all the more obvious by the fact that Montes’ alarm clock would go off in the mornings, sometimes for as long as 45 minutes, with no one in her bed to turn it off.
  • One evening, when a call to respond to a fire came in at a very early morning hour (i.e., between 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.), an engine officer observed Montes running from ROMERO’s room.
  • GUZMAN filed an “unusual occurrence” report regarding this incident with the Chief Deputy of Operations shortly after the incident occurred.
  • ROMERO gave Montes preferential treatment at Station 2 because of their intimate relationship that unreasonably interfered with the other firefighters’ performance of their job duties and created a hostile and abusive work environment based on sex.
  • ROMERO frequently assigned Montes to premium pay positions such as the Operator position, which entailed “driving the chief,” i.e. ROMERO, for premium pay, in favor of more senior firefighters, or those who were otherwise up for the position.
  • ROMERO also regularly allowed Montes to choose her preferred position on the fire truck, the Tiller position.
  • ROMERO would order the officer on duty to give her this position, despite this assignment being squarely in the officer’s discretion, and, for safety reasons, it usually being assigned to the firefighter most familiar with the apparatus.
  • ROMERO regularly ordered officers to assign Montes to these and other preferred positions, in complete disregard of the chain of command, seniority, and officer and public safety.
  • ROMERO also excused Montes from participating in drills that were essential to her training as a firefighter and member of the crew.
  • ROMERO also allowed Montes other privileges not afforded to the other firefighters.
  • This widespread sexual favoritism created a hostile and abusive work environment for the male firefighters who worked at Station 2.
  • ROMERO was fiercely protective of Montes, and aggressively retaliated against anyone who he and/or Montes perceived as having slighted her.
  • Firefighters, including officers, were afraid to complain about ROMERO’s preferential treatment because they feared retaliation by ROMERO, and even when they did complain, ROMERO dismissed them, saying, “I’m the Chief.”

Here is a copy of the complaint: Lai v San Francisco Complaint

 

Here is a link to a news story offering an in depth look at the case. I was not able to embed it directly. https://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/SF-firefighters-say-battalion-chief-was-having-an-12631838.php

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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