Anaheim Firefighter Claims Gender and Ethnicity Discrimination

A firefighter who was let go prior to the end of her probationary period with the Anaheim Fire Department has filed suit claiming she was the victim of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and discrimination on account of her Mexican ancestry. Anna Araujo filed suit earlier this month in Orange County Superior Court.

Araujo had been a firefighter in Kern County and at the Warner Brothers Fire Department in Burbank before entering Anaheim’s fire academy in 2017. She claims she was treated and evaluated differently than her male counterparts during the academy and her probationary period with Anaheim. The lawsuit characterizes the Anaheim Fire Department as “99% male.”

According to the complaint:

  • Plaintiff ANNA ARAUJO is a brave and accomplished firefighter, the only woman to complete Anaheim’s Fire Academy in 13 years.
  • Araujo had already proven herself as a firefighter over years at the Kern County Fire Department and elsewhere.
  • She should have finished probation on May 19, 2018. Instead, only men finished probation, nearly all of them white.
  • Araujo was held to different and more arduous standards than these white men were, prohibited from redoing evolutions she allegedly made too many mistakes on when the men routinely were allowed “do-overs” of more critical failures than she ever had.
  • Araujo allegedly failed at the conclusion of her probationary year for flubbing a single ladder throw at the end of a grueling series of evolutions, a feat she had accomplished numerous times during the year at Anaheim despite its being her most difficult challenge.
  • Until Anna, no one had ever been flunked out at the end of their probationary year in at least the past 17 years. And the men being tested were permitted to do their most challenging tasks earlier in the day, before fatigue and exhaustion set in.
  • Araujo was subjected to some of the same harassment and disparate treatment that women have notoriously endured for decades: being falsely accused of sleeping with a captain, and being falsely accused of having filed sexual harassment complaints and lawsuits at past jobs as well as at Anaheim.
  • The circulation of such rumors created a hostile work environment and made it even more difficult to bond with fellow firefighters and receive equal treatment and opportunities.
  • One of the duties of probationary firefighters is giving classes, such as on the operation of particular pieces of equipment. It takes a great deal of time and preparation to give such classes.
  • Araujo had to give them throughout her tour; at least one of the legacy hires, whose father had been a chief and whose brother was a current firefighter, never had to give a single class. Another legacy hire routinely violated rules and was not disciplined for it.
  • The training chief was harder on Ms. Araujo than on any other probationary firefighter. He excessively scrutinized her work.
  • It was readily apparent that this chief was following Ms. Araujo around, watching her in a way he never did with the men, thereby furthering the hostile work environment to which she was subjected.
  • At the time of her 6-month test, Ms. Araujo was treated far worse by the firefighter administering the test than the men were.
  • When Ms. Araujo brought this up to the training chief, the latter told her she should not be saying anything, as this firefighter was “one of my main guys and you are on probation.”
  • Araujo had more firefighting experience than most of the men in her class. On information and belief, only three men had more experience than she did.
  • The day of her final test as a probationary firefighter, she was purposely assigned her most difficult task at the end of all her ladder evolutions, when she was experiencing serious fatigue.
  • The most challenging task for Plaintiff involved “throwing a 20 foot straight ladder.”
  • She made the throw. It was not her best, but she did not have a “critical fail.” She was able to get the ladder up, get it down and get it back in the truck, alone, all without dropping the ladder.
  • Yet she was accused of having failed this task, allegedly because she failed to look up at a certain point in the task. Ms. Araujo adamantly denies this.
  • Throughout her year at Anaheim, Ms. Araujo observed that men were able to repeat tasks after “critical fails,” even the most basic tasks that every firefighter is expected to master early on in training. She observed men making the same mistakes she did, but with no adverse consequences: she’d be written up; they’d get a pass for the very same mistake.
  • For her last critical rotation as a probationary firefighter, Ms. Araujo was purposely partnered with “the weakest link”: the man with the worst skills and work ethic, someone who was essentially worthless in helping Ms. Araujo prepare for the final test. Still Ms. Araujo’s skills continued to improve throughout the entire probationary year.
  • While in the Anaheim Fire Academy, recruits were supposed to work eight hour days.
  • While other departments are diligent about making people stop work after eight hours, it was different for recruits. The schedule was nominally 8 am – 5 pm, but the recruits, including Plaintiff, frequently did not finish until 7:30 or 8 pm. But all work after 5 pm was off the clock and the recruits were not paid for it, as the training chief well knew.
  • On May 10, 2018, Ms. Araujo was informed that her employment was being terminated. She’d had no prior warning that her performance was unsatisfactory. A white male allegedly failed around the same time, but he was allowed to retake the test and complete his probationary year. Since she was terminated, Ms. Araujo has not been paid for the overtime she worked, or for her accrued leave.

The complaint contains 8 counts, all under state law:

  1. Gender discrimination
  2. Race, Color and Ancestry Discrimination
  3. Retaliation
  4. Hostile Environment Harassment
  5. Failure to Take Reasonable Steps under California Gov. Code § 12940(k)
  6. Retaliation under California Gov. Code § 1102.5
  7. Failure to Pay Overtime Wages under California Labor Code § 510
  8. Failure to Pay Wages at Termination under California Labor Code § 202 and 203

Here is a copy of the complaint: Araujo v Anaheim

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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