Civil trial underway in SFFD bias case

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 13, 2023
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San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac is suing the city claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson
San Francisco Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac is suing the city claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson

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

The lesbian San Francisco Fire Department assistant chief suing the city in civil court claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination wept on the stand during dramatic testimony at the trial's opening day.

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

Nicol Juratovac recalled signing a declaration on behalf of Larry Jacobs, a Black recruit who was allegedly being bullied by Assistant Chief Tom Siragusa. Jacobs had filed his own suit against the city back in 2013.

"It was hard," Juratovac said. "I signed it because it was the right thing to do."

Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, asked why it'd been hard.

Juratovac answered: "It was about Chief Siragusa. He did something I knew was wrong, and it was —"

At this point, Juratovac cried. Regaining composure she said, "You're not supposed to do this stuff, but I realize it was the right thing to do."

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

Cannata said ever since then, Juratovac was a marked woman in the eyes of some in the fire department, stuck in the past.

"They look back to the days when decisions were made based on who you knew," Cannata said during her opening statement. "Those persons could not, would not, embrace change, and there were points Juratovac took significant stands — stands she knew would not be popular."

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 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.

Cannata claimed Juratovac would be facing further discipline had she not sued back in 2021, as the Bay Area Reporter covered at the time.

Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen, opening on behalf of the city and county, characterized Juratovac's allegations as "a story."

"Chief Juratovac wants you to believe she has not been selected for discretionary command positions because she is a victim of discrimination," she said. "Set aside and ignore her behavior, relationship with her colleagues, and how that's affected her prospects."

Frenzen said that Juratovac hasn't advanced because she's "quick to take offense to criticism" and because "she does not use her power fairly. She uses it to the detriment of people she does not like. Her reports and complaints have more to do with herself and promoting her own reputation."

Juratovac: Drunken party led to more tension

On the trial's second day, September 8, Juratovac testified that reporting a drunken on-duty party that had led a paramedic not to respond to a fire call soured relations between her and colleagues — including one who was appointed to investigate the party in spite of the fact that he had "swung by" it.

"This is a five-alarm management problem that needs to get investigated," Juratovac said on the stand. "There was alcohol consumed and a firefighter paramedic, under the influence of cocaine and alcohol, was not getting on the engine — responding to fire calls — because of his state of inebriation."

The party is alleged to have happened at Fire Station No. 11 in Noe Valley in 2017 as part of retirement celebrations for a longtime colleague. Juratovac was not in attendance but found out about it when a new firefighter alleged to have been sexually harassed there.

"As firefighters, we don't want to be the person who reports things, but I'm an assistant chief at this point," Juratovac explained. "I had been to other retirement parties."

Juratovac said she asked Bill Storti, an assistant chief who was there, to report it, but initially he did not.

"I did [report it] because he wasn't going to report it," Juratovac said. "Then he did, but he himself was assigned as the investigator, and I saw that as a problem."

Cannata asked why it was a problem.

"Because he swung by," she explained. "He was part of the investigation."

Juratovac also raised eyebrows by asking that signs ostensibly posted by firefighters be removed. In one case, she ordered the removal of a "making the Department GREAT AGAIN" sign; in another case, a gender-neutral sign from the entrance to a men's locker room, since the department has only male and female locker rooms, and did not have gender-neutral bathrooms at the time.

Juratovac also said she upset people by ordering a picture of a beloved, deceased firefighter displaying the middle finger be removed from the wall, and asking that someone report a co-worker who was astounded that a female firefighter won the year's Super Bowl pool at one of the fire stations.

"I ordered the captain to handle it at the lowest level," Juratovac said. "Maybe it was a misunderstanding."

However, Juratovac reported that the captain did not handle it at all.

"The behavior [of Juratovac's perceived enemies in the department] became more and more unprofessional," she said. "I just wanted it to stop."

Cannata finished direct questioning of the star witness on September 11. Juratovac testified that she brought a discrimination complaint in 2020 against a colleague who "disparaged and mocked me in front of other members, mostly subordinates, despite my many attempts to tell him to stop."

The disparaging and mocking remarks consisted of the colleague characterizing a fire response led by Juratovac at the John Muir Apartments, near the county line on the westside, as "comedy hour."

The colleague also allegedly said that Juratovac was "like a kicked dog that just keeps coming back to its owner."

In her complaint, Juratovac brought up that she is a female Asian American and LGBTQ.

The cumulative effect of seven years of investigation took its toll on Juratovac, she said as direct testimony ended.

"It was incredibly hurtful," she said. "I was embarrassed, ashamed, humiliated; I was sad and I felt like I was constantly being undermined. 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. I knew it was a black mark on my career, whether I wanted to promote in our department or some other department. It just killed my spirit for the job."

"No further questions at this time," Cannata said, ending her questioning.

City cross-examines Juratovac

Midday September 11, Frenzen began cross-examination. The deputy city attorney challenged Juratovac's characterization of criticism about her work as being part of a retaliation pattern, asking if fire department members often "talk about what you can do better?"

Juratovac agreed that these conversations often happened but it was the "tone and tenor" of them that concerned her.

They were "more in a malicious tone than a 'lessons learned' tone," Juratovac said.

Frenzen tried to show that the seven investigations could be justified entirely by Juratovac's behavior.

One tense exchange occurred September 12 during discussion of the sixth investigation, which had happened after a firefighter felt "singled out" during a ladder drill. Juratovac was suspended for 10 days, though this eventually was reduced to four.

Frenzen questioned Juratovac about the San Francisco Fire Commission's statement of fact after it investigated following Juratovac's appeal of the 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 [the probationary firefighter]."

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. 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.

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 cross-examination, Cannata had the chance to ask questions of Juratovac again. Juratovac said at that time that the fire commission determined she'd violated a rule, 12E, that 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 by the chief.

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

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 record.

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

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

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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