Fire service suits rising

first_imgDespite a decade of efforts to end harassment and discrimination within the Los Angeles Fire Department, the agency still faces frequent costly lawsuits, according to records obtained by the Daily News. The number has ebbed and flowed over the years, but rose sharply from three in 2002-03 to 13 in 2004-05, City Attorney’s Office records show – and interviews with firefighters and attorneys suggest even more litigation is pending against a department facing increased scrutiny after a city audit found persistent “systemic harassment.” While many cases are pending, liability payouts have already topped $1 million in the past five fiscal years. The Supreme Court has refused to hear the city’s appeal in another Fire Department labor case that could leave Los Angeles on the hook for more than $2 million. The specter of the mounting costs disturbs some city leaders, who have called for an evaluation of the department’s employment practices after the city audit blamed rampant discrimination and retaliation on weak management and a poor disciplinary system. “At the same time, both men and women are treated with disrespect. Rookies are often lowest on the totem pole. Our administration seems to be only mildly annoyed by the whole situation.” Terese Floren, a former Ohio firefighter for 15 years who now heads Women in the Fire Service Inc., said treatment of female firefighters across the country has frayed since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “It’s difficult to talk about this because there’s so much pain and outrage still over 9-11,” she said. “But there very much was a backlash against women firefighters after 9-11. As soon as it happened, all the news coverage was about fireman, fireman, fireman – not firefighters, fireman.” Pat McOsker, president of United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112, the union that represents the rank and file, said his group has long believed the department’s discipline system is broken. “There has been a rash of lawsuits,” he said. “People obviously feel pushed to do that to seek justice.” Bamattre, who was promoted to chief in 1996, in part to increase the number of women on the 3,300-member force, defended his decade at the helm by pointing to increased numbers of recruits, and a force that is nearly 50 percent minority. But he acknowledged that recruiting women remains tough – particularly because of fallout over the harassment allegations. “Our people don’t know where the line is,” said Bamattre. “What troubles me in our efforts to recruit more women is the last thing we want to have is a perception among potential candidates that our department does not welcome women into the fire service.” Bamattre said he is committed to fixing it even as he is set to retire in little more than two years. He said he hopes to reform an aging disciplinary process in which firefighters can appeal their penalties to a panel of three fire chiefs – a system that only allows Bamattre to reduce, not increase, penalties. He also hopes to soon begin holding regular meetings with supervisors to grill them on the number of complaints of workplace harassment and hazing, in addition to how the fire bosses are handling their operational obligations. And Bamattre has begun holding regular sessions with small groups of supervisors to hammer through human relations and other workplace issues. “Our effectiveness in dealing with human relations issues will be dramatically improved,” he said. “I won’t leave until this changes.” Meanwhile, details of more cases are becoming public. Ruthie Bernal, 38, filed a lawsuit late last year in Los Angeles Superior Court accusing her former supervisor, Capt. Robert Meilleur, of sexually harassing her and making inappropriate and offensive remarks between December 2004 and March 2005. The suit seeks more than $25,000 in damages for the alleged sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, sexual battery and emotional distress. In the lawsuit, Bernal also said an internal complaint she filed with the department was never investigated, and that Meilleur was never interviewed or disciplined before he retired May 13, 2005. Bernal, who has been on the force since 1990, remains on duty. Her attorney, Richard A. Love, declined to comment. Meilleur could not be reached for comment. His attorney, William Lively, did not return a call seeking comment. Late last month, a heterosexual male firefighter filed a claim against the department alleging sexual harassment and discrimination. Between 2003 and 2005, the claim says, the 20-year veteran was abused by a supervisor who made sexually suggestive gestures and inappropriate remarks about the firefighter’s wife, and threatened to fire him if he complained. The claim, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks more than $25,000 in damages for sexual harassment and retaliation. The claim also says the firefighter complained about the situation, but faced retribution. Aaron Straussner, one of the lawyers in the case, also is representing African-American firefighter Brian Brooks, a 16-year veteran who alleges racial discrimination and retaliation and years of abuse from supervisors and peers. Mike McOsker, the current secretary of UFLAC and Pat McOsker’s brother, represented Brooks during disciplinary hearings and in March 2001, wrote a memo on Brooks’ behalf alleging “a historical and ongoing bias against African-Americans in the administration of discipline” at the department, according to a copy obtained by the Daily News. “Mr. Brooks’ case is one of the worst examples of a disciplinary system run amok,” Mike McOsker wrote in the memo, in which recounted a long history of unfair treatment against African-American firefighters in Los Angeles. In an interview, Mike McOsker said he stands by the statements. “We (UFLAC) are confident that under the current leadership of the Fire Commission, many of these issues will be resolved,” he said. The problems within the department dovetailed with a case from late 2003 that made it easier for California public employees to bring lawsuits before exhausting all administrative remedies, said Thomas Hoegh, a Woodland Hills lawyer representing numerous city firefighters. “I still don’t think the department understands the ramifications of this case,” he said. “Because it’s a sea change in the law in terms of remedies that are available to employees who believe they have been discriminated against.” Hoegh is representing 10 plaintiffs with labor-related cases against the department and says he is in the process of filing three more. The lawyer has attended recent Fire Commission meetings and followed the fallout from the audit, but does not think the department is addressing the fundamental causes. “Chief Bamattre called for transparency in these types of issues in the workplace and, in my opinion, the only way right now we’re getting transparency is through lawsuits and people accessing the courts and securing their rights in that manner,” he said. Even though less than 3 percent of the department work force is female, women accounted for 56 percent of plaintiffs in lawsuits filed against the department between 1996 and 2005, according to a city Personnel Department report. In addition to the cases filed by women and minorities alleging harassment, even the accused are threatening suits, saying the department is making them “scapegoats.” Capt. John Cappon, an 18-year veteran, was one of the supervisors of a female firefighter who said she became seriously injured because of excessive training. Cappon said he became the target of an internal investigation related to the incident almost a year later as the city controller’s auditors were probing the department. Cappon said he is preparing a lawsuit against the city that may allege harassment and retaliation. He said the department’s disciplinary system is rigged and tainted by internal politics. “The department now, I think, is looking for incidents so they can show they have been proactive,” he said. “I think now they’re looking for scapegoats.” Dan Laidman, (213) 978-0390 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MORECasino Insider: Here’s a look at San Manuel’s new high limit rooms, Asian restaurant “When we lose these cases for millions of dollars, that affects our general fund, which goes for services like street paving, sidewalks, trees, all the issues that concern people,” said Councilman Dennis Zine. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has called on his civilian Fire Commission to draw up a plan by the end of April for fixing the department’s workplace problems, and Chief William Bamattre is seeking a half-million dollars to staff an internal affairs division to investigate complaints. “The public is very clear: They don’t see this hazing and treatment as behaviors they expect of firefighters,” Bamattre said Friday. But, he said, “our people don’t see that same gravity. That is a challenge. We’ve got to get our people to realize these things are serious and cannot continue in the work environment.” At City Council and commission hearings since the January audit, numerous firefighters have decried the fact that an earlier scandal brought many of the same problems to light in the mid-1990s, yet they persist today. “It’s been so pervasive for so many years that it slowly gets better, then again, at times, it sort of rears its head again,” said Capt. Alicia Mathis, who’s been an LAFD firefighter since 1989. last_img

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