Korean Paramedic Accuses San Diego of Discrimination

A firefighter of Korean decent has filed suit against the San Diego Fire Department claiming the department’s refusal to reinstate him as a paramedic constitutes ethnicity discrimination.

Steve Choi filed suit last month in San Diego County Superior Court alleging that the city’s refusal to allow him to serve as a paramedic was based on the fact he was of Korean decent. The suit names the city and Deputy Chief Criss Brainard, the officer in charge of EMS.

Back in 2004, Choi was removed from serving as a paramedic for the department following an incident which the complaint describes as follows:

“Choi was alleged by the Department and, later as a result of this complaint the State, to have acted negligently while performing a difficult procedure during his employment.”

The decision to remove Choi was made by the department’s medical director, under whose license paramedics work. Choi never received a hearing over the change in status, which carried a financial impact in terms of loss of paramedic pay. He was never disciplined by the state over the incident, and has maintained his paramedic certification, although SDFD refused to allow him to practice as anything more than an EMT.

Choi filed a grievance over the change in his status and the loss of paramedic pay, claiming he should have at least had a hearing. The grievance was denied by the city council in 2007, and the union filed suit on Choi’s behalf.  In 2009, the California Court of Appeals ruled that:

Choi and Local 145 have cited no other rules or mutually explicit understandings that would give rise to a property interest in Choi's continued assignment as a paramedic for the City. Thus, we conclude that there is no merit to the contention that constitutional principles of due process require the City to afford Choi a predeprivation hearing and appeal concerning its decision to remove him from his assignment as a paramedic and cease payment of the paramedic premium.

Last April, Choi’s attorney requested he be reinstated as a paramedic. The request was denied. According to the complaint:

  • “The reason Choi has not been reinstated is his Asian/Korean ancestry and a long-standing culture within the Department alienating and ostracizing such individuals.
  • “Choi has personally witnessed negative comments made towards himself and, generally, those of Asian/Korean ancestry, in addition to the disparate treatment of the same, by Criss Brainard, Deputy Chief EMS for the Department.
  • “Throughout his career, Plaintiff has been called names such as, "Bock Choy", "Hop Sing" and other racially offensive names, including by Defendant Brainard.
  • “Brainard is the individual who is charged with the responsibility of determining Choi's reinstatement request and has, consistently, whether explicitly or by a purposeful failure to act, denied Choi's reinstatement despite the fact he meets are requirements for the position.
  • “Because Brainard, an individual, has acted intentionally in this matter, he is amenable [sic] to imposition of punitive damages if so found by a jury at trial.  Accordingly, such damages are sought against Brainard only in this matter.

The suit seeks damages and injunctive relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 denial of due process, and state law discrimination. It also seeks punitive damages against Chief Brainard.

Here is a copy of the complaint Choi v San Diego

More on the story.

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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