Firefighter Sues LAFD Over Handling of False Allegations

A Los Angeles firefighter who claims he was falsely accused of sexually assaulting a patient, has filed suit accusing the department of defamation and discrimination.

Louis Cerda, a 25 year veteran of Mexican-American heritage, filed suit last week in Los Angeles County Superior Court claiming that the department’s handling of a female patient’s accusations damaged his reputation and subjected him to adverse employment action.

The facts according to the complaint:

  • On September 29, 2017, plaintiff and his partner, Scott Cabunoc, assigned on-duty firefighter/paramedics, received a call for service, Incident #1267, to assist Engine #51 at the LAX International Bradley Terminal, gate 151, to transport a female “overdose” patient, identity unknown (hereafter “patient”), to Santa Monica Hospital.
  • At said time, the patient claimed to be the victim of a sexual assault on an onboard inbound American Airlines flight from Mexico to LAX.
  • During said call for service, plaintiff was solely responsible for data input in connection with the patient. Plaintiffs partner was responsible for the patient care during transport.
  • Additionally, given the nature of the call, all times in which plaintiff and Cabunoc were with the patient, LAPD-LAX (LA WA) Officer Chrystal Mitchell also was assigned to and remained with the patient and escorted the patient in the paramedic rig to the hospital, where she continued to remain in the patient’s presence.
  • The transport was uneventful and after arriving at the hospital, plaintiff and Cabunoc transferred patient care to hospital staff. Plaintiff and Cabunoc then departed the hospital without incident.
  • A few days later, on October 3, 2017, plaintiff received notice from LAFD Asst. Chief Armando Hogan that he was relieved of duty forthwith “for serious allegations of assault at an incident at LAX,” and that plaintiff would be administratively detailed with pay to an off-field assignment, known as “Supply and Maintenance Div.,” which is commonly known throughout LAFD as a disciplinary detail.
  • Shortly after plaintiffs removal from active field service, he informally learned that the patient from the September 29, 2017 LAX service call, allegedly reported that she had been sexually assaulted and digitally penetrated by a FF. Apparently, the patient described the FF as “bald.” Plaintiff does have a shaved head.
  • On or about December 6, 2017, Deputy Chief Jason Hing advised Station 62 Capt. Donald Semenza, that the patient described the alleged firefighter perpetrator as a “bald headed Mexican,” although there is nothing now or then to substantiate this racial characterization.
  • On or about October 30, 2107, plaintiff was returned to “restricted duty” at Station 62, in that he was not permitted to have any patient contact and/or ride a paramedic rig, but was permitted to ride engine.
  • Thereafter, on or about November 15, 201[7], LAFD lifted plaintiffs restricted duty status and he returned to full-time, active FFIII/paramedic duty without any further restriction.
  • During said period of restriction, plaintiff was ineligible from receiving overtime assignments and earning overtime pay, which he had routinely earned prior to the adverse administrative action.
  • At all relevant times and during the period of the adverse employment action, LAFD never provided any formal notice of any accusation against plaintiff and/or never provided any opportunity for plaintiff to address the adverse employment action.
  • At present, plaintiff does not know whether his LAFD personnel file reflects an adverse employment action related to the patient complaint.
  • At all relevant times, plaintiff has never been provided any opportunity to submit a formal written response to LAFD in connection with the adverse employment action, although plaintiff finally was interviewed and audio recorded by LAFD and LAPD investigators on two occasions many months after being returned to unrestricted duty.
  • The claim that he violated Defendants’ policies or committed any type of sexual impropriety with any patient was false and pretextual in that the spurious allegation could easily and rapidly be disproved by simply contacting FF/PM Cabunoc and LAWA Off. Mitchelle to obtain statements, but instead, defendants allowed the adverse employment action unreasonably and/or intentionally to linger in order to discriminate and harass plaintiff despite plaintiffs repeated requests thru counsel to contact the aforementioned witnesses.

The complaint alleges the city failed to follow its own procedures for conducting investigations and refused to provide Cerda or his attorney with information about the adverse employment action he sustained. Cerda is seeking damages including lost overtime wages, mental pain/emotional distress, and attorney’s fees.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Cerda v LA

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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