California EMTs Sue For COVID19-Safety Related Termination

Two California EMTs who were terminated after refusing to transport COVID 19 patients last spring because they were not supplied with properly-fitting N95 masks, have filed separate suits claiming wrongful termination, gender discrimination, retaliation, and violation of California Labor code.

Rayan Melendez and Kaitlin Wilson filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court last week against Eastwest Proto, Inc., dba Lifeline Ambulance. Both were fired on May 13, 2020 following several weeks of contentious back-and-forth with Lifeline supervisors. The matter came to a head on May 6, 2020. As explained in Wilson’s complaint:

  • On or about May 6th, 2020, Plaintiff received a call regarding a positive COVID-19 patient at the start of her shift. Plaintiff called Dispatch and spoke to dispatcher “Darlene.”
  • Plaintiff informed her that her team had not yet received their N95 masks and therefore did not feel comfortable taking the call.
  • Dispatch cancelled the call and assigned a new call to Plaintiff’s team. Plaintiff and her team were assigned to a bariatric 5150 patient who weighed 310 lbs. and had a height of 5’7.
  • Plaintiff sent a text message to dispatch to follow LIFELINE protocol and confirm a lift assist, in which two extra EMTs are assigned to the call to help lift the patient safely.
  • Dispatcher “Darlene” paged the Plaintiff, denying her request for lift assist.
  • Dispatcher “Darlene’s” page to the Plaintiff read “NEED YOU GUYS TO ATTEMPT OR GET HELP FROM FAC (facility) WAS PLANNING ON SENDING MALE CREW TO RUN THIS CALL BUT THEY GOT THE COVID CALL INSTEAD.”
  • The page from Dispatcher “Darlene” was both sexist and discriminatory.
  • Plaintiff felt unsafe taking the call, as it required her to lift more than the 150lb weight lift limit assigned to each EMT.
  • Plaintiff felt that lifting outside of her weight limit put the patient’s safety at risk.
  • Plaintiff took the call because she had refused the COVID-19 call prior.
  • No incidents occurred during the call and the patient was safe.
  • On or about May 6th, 2020, Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez were called into an end of shift meeting with On-Duty Supervisor Jorge Fazzini, and Operations Manager David Munoz.
  • In this meeting, Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez were asked about the bariatric 5150 Patient.
  • Jorge Fazzini and David Munoz were told by the dispatcher, “Darlene,” that Plaintiff had refused the call and that the patient was only 304lbs.
  • This was false information as Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez had taken the call and the Plaintiff was 310lbs, rather than 304lbs.
  • Jorge Fazzini and David Munoz questioned why Plaintiff had confirmed a lift assist, to which she responded that it was protocol to request lift assist for anyone over 300lbs.
  • David Munoz informed Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez that they were not in trouble, and a verbal warning was not issued.
  • David Munoz stated that he was simply looking for clarity on that day’s calls and wanted to determine a solution for the N95 mask issue.
  • At the end of the meeting on or about May 6th, 2020, Plaintiff informed David Munoz, Jorge Fazzini, and Konnor Klipfel of the sexist remark made by “Darlene.”
  • David Munoz told the Plaintiff to contact Human Resources to file a complaint.
  • After the May 6th, 2020, meeting, Plaintiff emailed Nicole Sternquist, who worked in Human Resources, informing her of the situation with “Darlene” from dispatch.
  • Nicole Sternquist informed the Plaintiff that she would be investigating the incident alongside the Operations department.
  • On or about May 12th, 2020, Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez were called into two separate meetings.
  • Nicole Sternquist, Director of Communication and Human Resources, and On-Duty
  • Supervisor Jorge Fazzini spoke with Rayan Melendez first.
  • Plaintiff spoke with Nicole Sternquist, Jorge Fazzini, and the Chief Operations Officer, Michelle Dodgen, after Rayan Melendez.
  • Nicole Sternquist began the meeting by discussing her investigation into the sexist remark made by “Darlene” from Dispatch on May 6th, 2020.
  • Nicole Sternquist informed Plaintiff that she had spoken to “Darlene” to get the “full story” of what had happened on May 6th, 2020.
  • Nicole Sternquist had never formally spoken with the Plaintiff in order to understand the series of events from the Plaintiff’s perspective. This was against LIFELINE company policy.
  • Nicole Sternquist also stated that “LIFELINE did not have a max weight per EMT and the bariatric patients are 350lb and above.”
  • Plaintiff informed Nicole Sternquist and the others at the meeting that she had been told that bariatric patients were 300lb and above during orientation, to which they responded that she had been incorrectly informed.
  • No one had ever informed Plaintiff she was incorrect regarding the 300lb limit during the year long period she had been working at LIFELINE.
  • Nicole Sternquist proceeded to tell the Plaintiff that she had listened to the phone call recordings between “Darlene” from Dispatch and the Plaintiff, and “Darlene” was not being sexist, condescending, or rude to the Plaintiff.
  • Plaintiff informed Nicole Sternquist that she had never cited the phone-call with“Darlene” as sexist, and had only referenced the page “Darlene” had sent her.
  • Nicole Sternquist and Michelle Dodgen dismissed Plaintiff’s complaint, stating that “Darlene” had not meant the page to be sexist.
  • Michelle Dodgen told the Plaintiff that “male crews used to be a thing and some females prefer it that way, that men get the heavier patients.”
  • Plaintiff was further offended by Michelle Dodgen’s comment, as it insinuated that male EMTs are better equipped for the job.
  • Human Resources proceeded to close the case with no further action towards “Darlene.”
  • The May 12th, 2020, meeting shifted towards a discussion of the N95 masks and Plaintiff and Rayan Melendez’s refusal to take the COVID-19 call on April 29th and May 6th of 2020.
  • Plaintiff explained that the CDC states that if a mask does not fit, it is not protective, and it is therefore reasonable for herself and Rayan Melendez to refuse a call should they not have personal protective equipment.
  • Michelle Dodgen continued to ask Plaintiff what was “really wrong,” and stating that she was “obviously emotional about something.”
  • When Plaintiff disagreed and stated that she was upset because she felt unsafe and discriminated against at work, Michelle Dodgen told the Plaintiff that she was “not allowed” to speak to [her] “in that tone” and that the Plaintiff was being “aggressive.”
  • At no point during the meeting did Plaintiff yell, curse, or threaten anyone in any way.
  • Jorge Fazzino and Nicole Sternquist placed a final written warning in front of the Plaintiff and requested that she sign it.
  • The Plaintiff had never received a verbal or written warning prior to receiving the final warning. Plaintiff refused to sign. An hour later, Plaintiff received a text message from On-Duty Supervisor Konnor Klipfel informing her that she had a Human Resource meeting at noon on May 13th, 2020.

Both Wilson and Melendez were terminated the next day for insubordination and harassment. The suits allege sex discrimination (associational in Melendez’s case); violation of California Labor Code § 6310 (retaliation and termination for complaining about violations of CalOSHA); retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act; and wrongful termination.

Here are copies of the complaints:

Wilson

Melendez

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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