San Francisco Firefighter Alleges Discrimination Based on Race and Sexual Orientation

A veteran San Francisco firefighter who claims to have endured decades of harassment on account of his race and sexual orientation, is suing the city in state court on six state law counts. Keith Baraka filed suit late last year in San Francisco County Superior Court. The case appears to be in the news again as Baraka filed his First Amendment Complaint last week.

The complaint lists numerous examples of offensive and inappropriate conduct Baraka endured dating back to 1999, but the claims in the suit arise out of the treatment he received most recently in his assignment as Firefighter Recruitment Coordinator.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Upon being offered the job, Mr. Baraka was informed that he would be receiving a pay cut.
  • He was also informed that he could not work overtime in his Recruiter role.
  • Not being able to work overtime meant that he had to flex his schedule in order to attend off-hour and weekend events that fall within his recruitment duties.
  • For his Recruiter role, Mr. Baraka was classified as an H-2 firefighter.
  • Mr. Baraka was aware that other firefighters who were performing administrative duties received a higher classification for this work.
  • Typically, they were classed as H-18.
  • Being classed as an H-18 over an H-2 would mean a difference in pay of at least $20 more per hour.
  • As a result of this difference in pay for substantially similar work, Mr. Baraka asked for an increase in his pay.
  • He was given a list of duties, however it was not a list of all his expected duties.
  • He has not been given regular performance reviews by those who directly supervise his work.
  • Without a clear job description, a consistent supervisor or consistent and clear guidance in how to perform his job, the Department has created a set of circumstances whereby it can use the resulting ambiguities in his current role against Mr. Baraka to create a narrative that he is not performing his job duties properly.
  • And in fact, Mr. Baraka has been targeted with arbitrary and capricious disciplinary investigations as retaliation for his complaints of discrimination and requests for equal pay.
  • The following paragraphs outline examples of this use of the disciplinary process to further discriminate against Mr. Baraka and harass him:
  • Mr. Baraka has been hamstrung in being able to perform his job duties.
  • The current Chief of the Department, Jeanine Nicholson, while serving as Assistant Chief, failed to invite Mr. Baraka, the only Recruitment Coordinator in SFFD, to a meeting about recruitment strategies with another county fire department.
  • On October 4, 2019, Mr. Baraka received a letter from the Chief of the Department Jeanine Nicholson outlining that he had violated City policies and that he would be subject to an investigation.
  • However, this letter did not outline the nature of the conduct that allegedly violated policy.
  • On February 3, 2020, Mr. Baraka attended a meeting before the Civil Service Commission (CSC ) that was hearing an appeal filed by a ResQ member who identifies as black and transgender.
  • This member was appealing DHR’s administrative closure of his EEO complaint for discrimination based on gender identity.
  • Mr. Baraka spoke during the open comment period where he publicly shared that he has recruited qualified transgender individuals to apply for employment to the SFFD, only to have those recruits denied opportunities.
  • Mr. Baraka attended this meeting on his own time and out of uniform.
  • On March 5, 2020, Mr. Baraka attended a meeting of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) to discuss outreach opportunities to members of the LGBTQ community.
  • He attended at the invitation of HRC because of his Recruitment Coordinator role at SFFD.
  • Because this fit squarely within his job duties , Mr. Baraka attended the meeting in uniform.
  • On March 10, 2020, Mr. Baraka was counseled by his immediate supervisor Captain Gering and Assistant General Chief Joel Sato for his attendance of the February 3rd CSC appeal hearing and the March 5th HRC meeting.
  • He was informed that his attendance at both events violated policy because they had not been approved.
  • However, this was the first time in his four years of serving in the Recruitment Coordinator role that Mr. Baraka was informed that he needed to request approval to attend such events.
  • On June 25, 2020, the Chief of the Department Jeanine Nicholson recommended that Mr. Baraka be suspended for 9 days for his work in supporting an unpopular ballot measure.
  • Most recently, on October 23, 2020, Mr. Baraka was issued a letter from his supervisor Deputy Chief of Administration, Jose Velo explaining that he would be demoted from his Recruitment Coordinator role because Mr. Baraka refused to take on additional and “revised responsibilities” without an increase in his pay commensurate with other Coordinator roles in the department and to reflect these additional duties.
  • As of November 9, 2020, Mr. Baraka is no longer the Recruitment Coordinator at the SFFD.

The Amended Complaint alleges six counts:

  • Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under state law
  • Race discrimination under state law
  • Sexual orientation and or racial harassment under state law
  • One count of Retaliation under each of the above state law counts.

Here is a copy of the First Amended Complaint:

Here is the original complaint:

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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