SFFD trial sees testimony from 2 fire chiefs

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 20, 2023
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San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson leaves the courthouse after testifying September 19. Photo: John Ferrannini
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson leaves the courthouse after testifying September 19. Photo: John Ferrannini

[Editor's note: This article is a summary of the previously published articles online and appeared in the print edition.]

The current and immediate past chiefs of the San Francisco Fire Department gave contrasting views in court of the lesbian assistant chief suing the city on allegations of discrimination and whistleblower retaliation.

Joanne Hayes-White, a straight ally who was San Francisco's fire chief from 2004-2019, said on the stand September 14 that Nicol Juratovac has "had a lot of success in the department and is a role model," but that she still wouldn't characterize her as a "victim."

Jeanine Nicholson, the current chief and the first out LGBTQ chief in the department's history, said September 19 that Juratovac "has a hard time getting along with people, and there are a lot of people in the department who are afraid of her."

The two testified as part of the second week of testimony in Juratovac's civil lawsuit, which began September 7 in San Francisco Superior Court before Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos. The first week consisted largely of testimony from Juratovac, who as the Bay Area Reporter has extensively reported, said that after she stuck up for a bullied fire recruit was targeted by seven bogus disciplinary investigations. These left a "black mark on my career" and "killed my spirit for the job," she testified September 11.

"I was embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated; I was sad and I felt like I was constantly being undermined," said Juratovac. "People I'd helped get into the department, had promoted, were now shunning me. People called me privately, offering support, but wouldn't do it in public in front of anybody."

Former San Francisco fire chief Joanne Hayes-White leaves the courthouse following her testimony September 14. Photo: John Ferrannini  

Former chief discusses 'personality'
On September 14, Hayes-White was brought by the plaintiff as an adverse witness. She testified that she started in the department in 1990, two years after a federal court issued a consent decree, ordering the SFFD to hire a workforce of at least 40% minorities and 10% women. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that by 1995, the department was 31% minority and 5.3% women.

"I was amongst the first 20 or so women who came in," Hayes-White recalled. "I would say the overall goal would be to have a workforce reflective of the community we were serving."

Eventually, she became the first woman to lead the department.

Hayes-White said she remembered Juratovac as "hardworking," "well-prepared," and "articulate" — and that sometimes interpersonal issues between firefighters can reach a fever pitch because of the flip side of qualities, such as assertiveness and confidence, that the department wants in its employees.

"There's a lot of personality in the fire service," Hayes-White said. "Most people who sign up for the job are assertive, aggressive, and confident. It should be said that you also work in 24-hour shifts — it's not a 9-5 — there are oftentimes more than any other workplace except the military that the people you're recruiting come together and there are interpersonal conflicts."

Juratovac was one of those people, Hayes-White said.

"There were times Chief Juratovac thought that she was disrespected," Hayes-White said. "Other people felt disrespected by her. That was pretty common."

Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, asked if female firefighters experienced or reported more issues with colleagues than male firefighters.

"It's hard to say," Hayes-White said. "When I came in, in 1990, there were some long 24-hour shifts. ... it is an intense job — rich in tradition, that's good — but over time a little more welcoming to a large group of people. We are the most diverse department in the world."

When asked about the "making the Department GREAT AGAIN" sign mentioned September 8 that Juratovac had ordered removed, Hayes-White demurred. Cannata asked if it represented the views of some people who wanted to return "to a time before more diversity."

"It's hard for me to get into minds but, as a rule-follower, it did not have authorization," she said.

During her time as chief, Hayes-White rescinded the third and fourth investigations into Juratovac, which regarded interactions with people at San Francisco International Airport, where Juratovac was then stationed.

In cross-examining Hayes-White, Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen asked if she'd consider Juratovac a victim, mentioning the latter's "black mark" remark earlier.

"I would not refer to them as a black mark," Hayes-White said. "Over the course of my time there, there were hundreds of investigations. Some led to discipline and some did not."

Juratovac lacks 'soft skills,' fire chief claims
Nicholson, a lesbian appointed by Mayor London Breed to lead the department in 2019, claimed Juratovac lacked the "soft skills" necessary for advancement.

Like Hayes-White, Nicholson was also called to the stand as an adverse witness and didn't agree with the "black mark" remark.

She testified during cross-examination by Deputy City Attorney Adam Shapiro that the existence of prior investigations and documented coachings didn't affect Juratovac's chances when she applied for assistant deputy chief positions following Nicholson's appointment.

Nicholson said that she "considered interviewing her [Juratovac] but elected not to."

"What's really important are soft skills," Nicholson said. "The ability to get along with others, being trustworthy, taking accountability ... and I did not believe Chief Juratovac had these soft skills."

Nicholson also testified that "Juratovac has a hard time getting along with people, and there are a lot of people in the department who are afraid of her."

Earlier, Cannata questioned Nicholson with regard to the final three of seven disciplinary investigations that the plaintiff alleges were part of a pattern of unlawful harassment and discrimination, which occurred wholly or in-part during Nicholson's tenure.

With regard to disciplinary investigation No. 5, an investigation was opened up after a whistleblower made two allegations of Juratovac: that she hadn't reported secondary employment at City College of San Francisco, and that she had been running errands during work hours.

Asked Cannata: "Would you say it is common practice for an assistant chief to go to Walgreens to get toothpaste or run errands?"

Answered Nicholson: "Yes, it is. ... We work 24 hours, and you don't want somebody to not have their toothpaste, believe me."

Nicholson had said during a deposition for this lawsuit that she would write a letter exonerating Juratovac on the errands issue, but ultimately did not do so on advice of the city attorney's office, as Cannata explained.

On the matter of outside employment, Nicholson opted not to punish Juratovac, but to remind everyone via a letter to report their secondary employment if they hadn't done so.

Cannata asked how many people followed up on the letter by reporting their secondary employment status.

"I don't remember the number, but there was more than one," Nicholson said.

With regard to disciplinary investigation No. 6 — which led to Juratovac being suspended — Nicholson said she found Juratovac's behavior "completely inappropriate."

This investigation happened after a new, or probationary, firefighter felt "singled out" during a ladder drill. Nicholson said this "undermines our chain of command," because an assistant chief should have left correction to a subordinate.

"Chief Juratovac oversees half of the city," Nicholson said. "She is in a position of real authority in the department. ... We don't lead by fear."

She also blasted Juratovac for mentioning that firefighter's sexual orientation in a report, which Juratovac had testified was common knowledge in the department. Nicholson said that to her mind, the mention violated a city policy, Chapter 12E, which prohibits city officials from inquiring into the "sexual orientation, practices, or habits" of individuals. (It was rescinded in 2021 so that the city could track the number of LGBTQ people applying for, and being hired for, jobs with the city and county of San Francisco.)

"It's inappropriate, unnecessary and has zero bearing on the issue," Nicholson said.

Juratovac was ordered suspended for 10 days; eventually she served a four-day suspension after Nicholson lowered the number of days to eight and the city's fire commission cut that in half.

With regard to disciplinary investigation No. 7, in which Juratovac and two other assistant chiefs were investigated because of a document that had gone missing, Nicholson testified that although Deputy Chief of Operations Victor Wyrsch admitted he'd shredded the document, she didn't feel an investigation into him was necessary.

"Wyrsch came to me and said he did this, it was a mistake, knew it was a mistake, and it'd never happen again," she testified. "That means a lot, so there was no need for an investigation."

Juratovac and the others were exonerated at the end of that investigation.

Nicholson also testified that she made no exception and knew of no exception she could have made to allow Juratovac to work as a strike team leader trainee as part of the department's Mutual Aid Wildland Firefighting Strike Team.

San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac is suing the city. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson  

Assistant chief takes stand
Tom Siragusa, an assistant chief who is also now retired and who Juratovac claims was the genesis of several acts of retaliation and discrimination against her, testified September 14. A witness for the city, he was called out of order due to a prior commitment.

Juratovac had said that the retaliation began after she signed a declaration on behalf of Larry Jacobs, a Black fire recruit who was experiencing bullying.

Jacobs, who sued the department, had been forced to eat meals alone in his car and scrub the floor of the fire station with a toothbrush, Cannata said on the trial's opening day. He was also called a "house boy," SF Gate reported in a 2013 article about the case settling for $175,000.

Siragusa testified that he told Shapiro that he was "not aware," until his deposition in this case, that Juratovac had signed the Jacobs' declaration.

Juratovac had also said investigation No. 5, regarding personal business on duty, happened after Siragusa's friend, Janet Oliver, a driver with the department, had reported her.

Siragusa said that when he required Oliver's services, he didn't recall going on errands "other than maybe an ATM [withdrawal] or a cup of coffee."

He also said the two were involved socially to the extent that "I'd go for walks on Marina Green and there were a couple times that she joined me."

Cannata brought up texts between the two about Juratovac, including one with an "exploding head" emoji that mentioned he was having difficulty working with her. Siragusa testified that he did not recall the texts.

"It's possible that I sent that emoji," Siragusa said.

Siragusa said he reported Juratovac for not immediately telling the department about a member's DUI, which prompted investigation No. 2. Juratovac testified September 7 that ISB, the department's internal investigative bureau, should have reported it within 24 hours.

"It was an important matter I should have been made aware of," Siragusa said. "ISB is not in her [Juratovac's] chain of command. It is through me, to the administration."

Juratovic's attorney, Cannata, also called Charles Crane, a retired SFFD battalion chief, to the stand. He testified that with regard to the ladder drill, investigation No. 6, he and Juratovac had talked about the performance of firefighter Lauren Canning the previous day, and that he felt it was OK that she wanted to test Canning's abilities, even if it was out of the ordinary.

"If you can include it into a proper drill, you can single out a person," Crane said, adding he didn't mean 'single out' in a negative way.

"As an assistant chief, you're more concerned with the procedure. You want to make sure procedure is followed," he added. "It is not punitive, it's supportive."

The plaintiff alleges eight causes of action against the city: unlawful retaliation in violation of the labor code; unlawful retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; discrimination based on sexual orientation; discrimination based on race; discrimination based on gender; unlawful harassment; failure to investigate and prevent discrimination, harassment and retaliation; and violation of the California Public Records Act.

In her opening statement September 7 Cannata laid out the seven disciplinary investigations that'd been undertaken against Juratovac, which the plaintiff claims were part of a pattern of retaliation and discrimination against her just for doing her job — all after she stuck up for Jacobs.

These were, in chronological order, 1) about an argument ostensibly about a mask at a 2014 fire; 2) her order that a firefighter who'd been arrested for driving under the influence stop driving on duty in 2015; 3 and 4) two separate incidents at San Francisco International Airport in 2016; 5) a dispute over proper reporting of secondary employment in 2019; 6) a dispute about a ladder drill in 2019; 7) and a dispute over a lost document in 2020.

The trial is anticipated to continue September 21 in Department 303 of San Francisco County Superior Court, 400 McAllister Street, at 9:30 a.m.

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