Firefighter Claims Sexual Harassment and Discrimination Cost Her Two Jobs

A California firefighter who was dismissed from two different fire departments, has filed suit against one of the departments and three of its officers. Shelly White filed suit against the Rough and Ready Fire Protection District, Fire Chief Robert Vaughn, Captain Matt Wright, and Lieutenant David Hicks alleging sexual harassment and sexual discrimination under state and federal law.

White was also a “paid volunteer” with the Foothill Fire Department, where she served for 17 years. According to the complaint, she had been nominated for promotion to captain at Foothill FD when her troubles at Rough and Ready FPD spilled over. Her work for Rough and Ready FPD began in October, 2018, and only lasted until June, 2019, when she was terminated.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Throughout her employment with RRFD, White was the subject of constant sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
  • Defendant Hicks began to engage in pervasive, offensive, and unwanted sexual conduct towards White soon after her hiring.
  • On a daily basis, while on the job at the RRFD’s station, Defendant Hicks would make lewd and sexual comments to White.
  • For example, Defendant Hicks would ask her to have sex and would often brag about how good he was performing specific sex acts, using graphic and vulgar language.
  • Defendant Hicks also routinely asked or told White to show him her breasts. Defendant Hicks told her that her job and everyone else’s would be much better if she showed everyone her breasts.
  • Defendant Hicks would make gestures suggestive of sexual acts to White.
  • Defendant Hicks would make these gestures and remarks in front of others at the station.
  • White always rejected Defendant Hicks’ sexual advances and asked him to stop his inappropriate behavior.
  • Defendant Hicks was undeterred and continued to behave inappropriately toward White throughout her employment with RRFD, and was never prevented from continuing to engage in his acts of harassment by management.
  • White made several verbal and written complaints to Defendant Wright regarding Defendant Hicks’ unlawful sexual advances and remarks toward her.
  • Defendant Wright did not do anything in response to White’s complaints but conduct a sham investigation that resulted in nothing more than a simple warning to Defendant Hicks.
  • On June 9, 2019, after numerous complaints about how she was sexually harassed by Defendant Hicks, White was “laid off” by RRFD through Defendant Hicks.
  • On the evening of her termination, a dinner was planned at the station for White but instead which ended with Defendant Hicks degrading and yelling expletives at White.
  • At one point, Defendant Hicks told her to “get the f*ck*” out of [his] station”.
  • When White attempted to leave, Defendant Hicks asked her to stay promising her that they would “patch things up”.
  • White, in fear of what might happen if she refused, stayed only to have Defendant Hicks direct more expletives at her.
  • When White expressed her dissatisfaction with her termination and Defendant Hicks’ behavior toward her, Defendant Hicks’ contorted White’s words and falsely claimed that White was expressing suicidal ideations.
  • Defendant Hicks proceeded to call 911, telling dispatchers that White had suicidal ideations and was a danger to herself, attempting to get White involuntarily detained.
  • The dispatchers found that White was fine but was actually being threatened by Defendant Hicks.
  • Though White explained to Defendant Hicks that she was not upset nor in any danger of harming herself, Defendant Hicks continued to disseminate false claims about her having suicidal ideations to the Sheriffs and the assistant chief of the Foothill Fire Department, White’s other employer.
  • As a result of Defendant Hicks’ false claims and harassment against White, White’s position at Foothill Fire Department was adversely affected. Specifically, White was not promoted to captain as anticipated and instead told she should step down from her position.
  • White was eventually terminated from her position at the Foothill Fire Department not long after she filed a Charge of Discrimination against RRFD.

White’s suit was originally filed in Nevada County Superior Court, and removed to US District Court for the Eastern District of California. Here is a copy of the complaint

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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