SFFD trial: Jury begins deliberating after powerful closing arguments

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday September 28, 2023
Share this Post:
Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen leaves San Francisco Superior Court Thursday, accompanied by two San Francisco Fire Department officials. Photo: John Ferrannini
Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen leaves San Francisco Superior Court Thursday, accompanied by two San Francisco Fire Department officials. Photo: John Ferrannini

The civil jury in the case of a lesbian assistant fire chief suing San Francisco for retaliation and discrimination started deliberating September 28 after her lawyer and the city's attorney gave closing arguments.

Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen gave a powerful ending to her closing arguments, saying that it is Assistant Chief Nicol Juratovac, and not the fire department, who needs to be held accountable.

"Chief Juratovac is in a significant position of power in the fire department," Frenzen told the jury. "I can't believe we're coming to a place where how we treat each other doesn't matter. The fire department is not perfect but Chief Juratovac is not perfect either and I hope people hold her accountable and I hope those people are you."

The jury, which appears to be made up of nine men and three women, are being asked whether Juratovac was victim to a campaign of harassment and retaliation, and also discrimination on the basis of her race, sex, and sexual orientation.

Thursday was the 12th day of the trial in San Francisco Superior Court, before Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos.

In her jury instructions, Bolanos confirmed that nine of the 12 jurors have to find that the plaintiff's case is more likely true than not true — a different standard from criminal proceedings, which requires a unanimous jury to find that facts are proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

'She has survived'

Earlier, Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, said that Juratovac's hopes and dreams were crushed by a "clubhouse" culture that couldn't accept her as the first female to be a permanent assistant chief. The department has only had women since 1987 and, one year after that, a federal court mandated more women be hired.

"You work hard, you follow the rules — in the fire department, you learn the rules, you learn the tools," Cannata said. "Her confidence, her belief it would all work out, her belief it would stop, it all started falling away. This was not just a miserable day at work — this was actually her job, and her career."

For three hours, Cannata walked through the seven disciplinary actions Juratovac alleges constituted the department's discrimination against her. 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; and 7) and a dispute over a lost document in 2020.

"This was not for not showing up for work or drinking on the job," Cannata said. "These were for minor things at work."

Cannata alleged the investigations started because Juratovac signed a declaration in court 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.

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.

Siragusa testified he didn't know about Juratovac's declaration.

"You can see, in the events that followed, Chief Siragusa never forgot it," Cannata said. "You can see it through the DUI [investigation No. 2], through Janet Oliver [who plaintiff alleges may have helped start investigation No. 5], he was intimately involved with what was going on with her and he got others to go along with it."

Both Cannata and Frenzen quoted retired fire chief Joanne Hayes-White, who testified that Juratovac is a "role model," but not a "victim."

"She is a role model but she is not a victim," Cannata agreed. "She has survived."

Cannata, through a timeline, tried to tie Siragusa and his friends and confidants to a number of investigations. She said that they could have stopped Juratovac from advancing if they'd been successful before her promotion by Hayes-White to assistant chief — and did stop Juratovac from advancing in current Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson's administration. Nicholson, a lesbian who's led the department since 2019, was directly accused of participating in retaliatory activities.

Cannata said that Juratovac is owed damages potentially up to $502,508 (assuming a scenario where she was lawfully not promoted to assistant deputy chief) or of up to $949,045, not counting the cost of emotional distress, for which the jury can also award damages.

'Conspiracy theories'

Frenzen's closing was about one hour. It began with her accusing Cannata of "conspiracy theories, hyperbole, and assumptions."

"This is actually a fairly straightforward case," she said, going on to say that there's no evidence that any of the actions taken against Juratovac — including her suspension after disciplinary investigation No. 6 — were the result of any animus against her due to her race, sex, or sexual orientation and that they could all be shown, through testimony, to have been the result of proper practice.

"The evidence shows Chief Juratovac has frequent conflict with her colleagues, subordinates, and commanding officers," Frenzen alleged, reiterating that the assistant deputy chief position she didn't get promoted to was at the pleasure of the chief, and Nicholson testified that Juratovac lacked the "soft skills" for the job.

Frenzen said the plaintiff couldn't point to a specific promotional opportunity denied her.

"Despite Chief Juratovac's claim she's been denied an assistant deputy chief position, you haven't heard any testimony about what specific position she was denied," Frenzen said.

Frenzen also walked through a timeline of the disciplinary investigations. Regarding No. 6, the ladder drill incident that led to Juratovac's suspension, she mentioned that Juratovac "further exacerbate[d] matters" by mentioning then-new firefighter Lauren Canning's sexual orientation during a general report.

"What a way to make members feel welcome," Frenzen remarked, attacking Juratovac's earlier assertion during testimony that she did not single out Canning because she, too, is an LGBTQ woman.

"If that's the case, we should all go home now, because Chief Nicholson is also an LGBTQ woman," Frenzen said.

Ultimately, "there are a lot of people in the department who are afraid of" Juratovac, Frenzen said, accusing the assistant chief of putting at risk any work she's done for women or minorities in the department.

"The only pattern of conduct here is Chief Juratovac's conduct that led people to complain about her," Frenzen said.

As for being denied the opportunity to be a strike team leader trainee, "for the chief of the department to — even if she'd waive state guidelines — to let someone who's never been to a wildland fire lead a team of 20 people, seems to present a significant risk."

Cannata disagreed, saying that the fact Juratovac had not been presented with the opportunity to train in the first place was the result of a "clubhouse" — and that it's interesting that formal rules were only put in place only the same year Siragusa retired.

"There's a clubhouse — it's run by Chief Siragusa and his friends," Cannata said. "I get it, I'm married to a white male, I don't want to make it harder for anyone to exist in this world, but ... it's a bad clubhouse that excludes.

"It's like someone says 'come play a chess game but I'm not going to give you any pieces to put on the board,'" Cannata continued. "It's the fact that she's a woman, the fact that she's Asian American, the fact that she's LGBTQ."

After further instructions, Bolanos sent the jury to deliberate and excused two alternate jurors.

The jury will be asked to render a verdict on the eight causes of action against the city alleged in Juratovac's suit: 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, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, 10th, and 11th days cover these in further detail.)

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.