SFFD trial: Assistant chief, city argue over who was 'singled out' over sexual orientation

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 12, 2023
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San Francisco Fire Station No. 11 in Noe Valley was the site of an alleged drunken party that is an issue in Assistant Chief Nicol Juratovac's discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city. Photo: John Ferrannini
San Francisco Fire Station No. 11 in Noe Valley was the site of an alleged drunken party that is an issue in Assistant Chief Nicol Juratovac's discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city. Photo: John Ferrannini

Cross-examination of the lesbian San Francisco Fire Department assistant chief suing the city for discrimination and retaliation ended mid-afternoon on the trial's fourth day, after tense exchanges about other LGBTQ members of the department.

The civil jury trial in San Francisco Superior Court is before Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos.

Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen, representing the City and County of San Francisco, argued that Nicol Juratovac's suspension was justified after she "singled out" a new firefighter during a ladder drill four years ago. It was one of seven disciplinary investigations that Juratovac contends were part of a campaign to besmirch her career.

The seven investigations were, in chronological order, 1) about an argument ostensibly regarding 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) the dispute about the ladder drill in 2019; 7) and a dispute over a lost document in 2020.

Frenzen questioned Juratovac about the San Francisco Fire Commission's statement of fact after it investigated following Juratovac's appeal of a 10-day suspension. The commission lowered the suspension to four days after Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian, lowered the number of days to eight.

The commission found that Juratovac "turned what should have been a routine drill into a test of one particular firefighter," and that she disclosed that firefighter's sexual orientation during an official statement.

Frenzen: "The probationary [firefighter Lauren Canning], as I understand it, is also LGBTQ, correct?"

Juratovac: "Right — I said I think it's undermining my authority as the only LGBTQ assistant chief."

Frenzen: "You're not talking about yourself, you're talking about [Canning]."

Juratovac: "I'm talking about myself, too."

Frenzen: "But you've never met her, correct?"

Juratovac: "I saw her on Instagram with her girlfriend, her partner."

Juratovac, as part of her role with the fire department's LGBTQ employee resource group ResQ, helped run the Instagram account. She'd testified earlier that Canning followed the group's page.

Continued Frenzen: "You thought it mattered she's LGBTQ because...?"

Juratovac: "It's relevant because I'm the only woman assistant chief, the only Asian assistant chief, the only LGBTQ assistant chief."

Frenzen: "You're talking about her, not about yourself."

Juratovac: "My reason for this was how can I as a woman, LGBTQ, be singling out, in the EEO terminology, if the probationary is also an LGBTQ woman?"

EEO refers to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces civil rights protections in the workplace mandated by federal law, such as not discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

Frenzen turned the line of questioning into an attack on the justification for the suit itself. Discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation is one of the eight causes of action that Juratovac is bringing against the city. The others are unlawful retaliation in violation of the labor code; unlawful retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; 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.

Frenzen asked, "Isn't Chief [Jeanine] Nicholson also an LGBTQ woman and you're accusing her of singling you out?"

Without missing a beat, Juratovac replied, "because she is."

Responded Frenzen: "But you, as an LGBTQ woman, would not single out anyone."

Juratovac: "I was doing a drill."

After Frenzen's cross ended, Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, had the opportunity to ask more questions of Juratovac.

Cannata honed in on the issue of exactly how the fire commission came to its conclusion Juratovac had violated policies regarding sexual orientation disclosure.

"I was being accused of singling out this firefighter from an EEO definition instead of that this firefighter needs some improvement in her physical fitness," Juratovac explained.

Said Cannata: "Did you know that Canning was an out LGBTQ firefighter?"

Responded Juratovac: "I knew of her from social media ... a photo of her and her girlfriend."

Juratovac said the fire commission determined she'd violated a rule, 12E, which bans inquiring about sexual orientation. However, Juratovac disagreed with its finding.

"I didn't inquire because I already knew," she testified.

Juratovac also contends that she was discriminated against in not being appointed to assistant deputy chief positions, which she conceded were essentially political appointments by the chief, and that she could not be appointed to for lawful reasons, because anyone with the rank of lieutenant or higher is eligible but nobody is required to be appointed to them.

However, after many years of not being appointed, and it became clear that people who were less experienced than she were getting the appointments, Juratovac began to be suspicious, she said, and decided 2021 would tell the tale.

"I could see why she [Nicholson] was selecting others not me over the years, because they had more seniority than I did," Juratovac said. "If I wasn't going to get it in 2021, I wasn't going to get it."

Juratovac had also applied for the position of fire chief, alongside many others, when Joanne Hayes-White retired in 2019. Mayor London Breed appointed Nicholson.

Juratovac also testified that other than in jokes, she'd never heard Hayes-White or Deputy Chief of Operations Mark Gonzales make inappropriate comments regarding race, gender, or sexual orientation.

During redirect with Cannata, Juratovac testified that the position of chief is among those she has no chance of attaining anymore because of the disciplinary actions on her fire department record.

Asked Cannata: "Are those [positions] available to you now?"

Responded Juratovac: "Not at all. ... Those dreams are shot."

Court is not in session on Wednesdays in this case; the trial is anticipated to continue September 14 in Department 303 of San Francisco County Superior Court, 400 McAllister Street, at 9:30 a.m.

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