SFFD trial: Fire chief Nicholson blasts plaintiff from the stand

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday September 19, 2023
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San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson leaves San Francisco Superior Court September 19 after testifying in a civil trial brought by an assistant chief. Photo: John Ferrannini<br>
San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson leaves San Francisco Superior Court September 19 after testifying in a civil trial brought by an assistant chief. Photo: John Ferrannini

San Francisco's first LGBTQ fire chief defended her record — and the department — in testimony September 19, charging the lesbian assistant fire chief suing the city for discrimination and retaliation with not possessing the "soft skills" necessary for advancement.

These skills include "the ability to get along with others" and "being trustworthy," said Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian who has been the fire chief since 2019.

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

Nicholson was called to the stand as an adverse witness by attorneys for plaintiff Nicol Juratovac. As the Bay Area Reporter has extensively reported, Juratovac is alleging that whistleblower retaliation and discrimination on the basis of her race, gender, and sexual orientation led to her being passed up for promotions, and otherwise left a "black mark" on her career that prevented her from promoting up in San Francisco's, or any city's, fire department, as she said during testimony September 11.

Nicholson didn't agree with that assessment, testifying 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 own appointment by Mayor London Breed.

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, Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, questioned Nicholson with regard to three of seven disciplinary investigations that the plaintiff alleges were part of a pattern of unlawful harassment and discrimination.

The seven 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 final three 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.

Nicholson is the second fire chief to testify during this trial. Her predecessor, Joanne Hayes-White, took the stand September 14 (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?ch=news&sc=legal&id=328379). She had called Juratovac a "role model," but insisted she was not a "victim."

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.

In total, Juratovac 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.

(Previous reports covering the trial's first, second, third and fourth, fifth, and sixth days cover these in further detail.)

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