SFFD trial: Jury rules in favor of the city, against assistant chief, in retaliation claims

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Friday September 29, 2023
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The city of San Francisco prevailed in a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by lesbian Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac. Photo: John Ferrannini
The city of San Francisco prevailed in a discrimination and retaliation lawsuit brought by lesbian Assistant Fire Chief Nicol Juratovac. Photo: John Ferrannini

The lesbian assistant fire chief who sued the City and County of San Francisco alleging retaliation, harassment, and discrimination lost her case September 29, with a jury deciding in favor of the city.

The verdict, which was unanimous except a 9-3 no vote on the question of whether Nicol Juratovac's disclosure of unlawful acts in the department contributed to adverse employment actions against her, ended a 13-day civil jury trial in San Francisco Superior Court that brought both the current and immediate past fire chiefs in for testimony.

Only nine of 12 votes were necessary to reach a verdict. In her jury instructions September 28, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Suzanne Ramos Bolanos confirmed that three-quarters of the jury had 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. The jury appeared to consist of nine men and three women.

Following the verdict, Bolanos addressed Juratovac after the jury left her courtroom.

"I really hope you continue with your fabulous career," she said. "It's clear the jurors were impressed with you, so that's very meaningful."

Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, gave a brief statement to the Bay Area Reporter.

"We're disappointed, but I'd like to thank the jury for their service," Cannata said.

Asked if Juratovac would like to speak to the B.A.R. Cannata said, "I think that speaks for her as well," before the two went behind closed doors.

In a subsequent news release, Cannata stated, "Reflecting on these past few weeks, we remain proud to have had the opportunity to represent Chief Juratovac in this case and know that she will carry on as a great leader of the San Francisco Fire Department."

Juratovac, one of six assistant chiefs, stated she'd be returning to duty.

"I have always wanted to be a firefighter and love the Department and my hometown, the City of San Francisco," stated Juratovac. "Look forward to returning to work and dedicating myself to the mission of the San Francisco Fire Department, which includes protecting the lives and property of the people of San Francisco and providing a work environment that values health, wellness, cultural diversity, and equity."

Deputy city attorneys Amy Frenzen and Adam Shapiro referred the B.A.R. to their office's spokesperson, Jen Kwart, who said, "justice prevails" in a statement.

"This result demonstrates that the jury understood the facts and that neither discrimination, nor harassment or retaliation occurred in this instance," stated Kwart, a spokesperson for City Attorney David Chiu. "The city is and has been committed to an inclusive workplace free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation."

Juror No. 9 agreed to speak to the B.A.R., but only wanted to be referred to by his number.

The juror said that it was clear there were interpersonal conflicts between Juratovac and her colleagues, but that it didn't rise to the level of unlawful behavior.

"We did feel she was an exemplary firefighter, but we do feel as she rose through the ranks her personality — she butted heads, not that there weren't tensions and microaggressions by some of the people the plaintiff pointed out, but it did not rise to the level of retaliation, harassment, or discrimination on the basis of her race, sexual orientation, or gender," he said. (Juratovac is Asian American.)

The juror also said Juratovac was herself partly to blame. He said Juratovac acted wrongly by mentioning a probationary firefighter's sexual orientation on an official form, which was part of the sixth of seven investigations into Juratovac — and the only one for which she was ultimately disciplined for.

"We all wanted to say she gave it as good as she got it," he said.

That doesn't mean the city handled the situation well; the juror had harsh words for the city's Department of Human Resources, which never completed an investigation into Juratovac's claims after the woman assigned to it abruptly resigned.

"We felt the HR department in particular did not process her claims in a timely manner," he said. "We were hoping for a separate question about HR. The woman who resigned, Rebecca Sherman, failed to process the report but it seems she had some personal issues. Her supervisor ... should have processed that."

The juror said he did not believe that former Assistant Chief Tom Siragusa led a campaign against Juratovac after she signed a declaration supporting a Black probationary firefighter who sued the city alleging he'd been bullied. Larry Jacobs had filed his own suit against the city back in 2013.

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

San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Chief Nicol Juratovac lost her discrimination and retaliation lawsuit against the city. Photo: Courtesy Cannata O'Toole and Olson  

Juratovac: 'Clubhouse' torpedoed career
Frenzen gave a powerful ending to her closing arguments September 28, saying that it was Juratovac, and not the fire department, who needed 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."

Earlier, Cannata 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 alleged 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 Jacobs, against Siragusa.

"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 alleged 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 during her closing that Juratovac was 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 could have also awarded damages. The jury decided otherwise.

City: Juratovac case '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 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."

Cannata told the B.A.R. September 29 that because this is an employment case, in the event of a loss the plaintiff pays the cost of the city's depositions and exhibits but not its attorney's fees. If Juratovac had prevailed, the city would have paid the plaintiff's depositions, exhibits, and attorney's fees.

The initial complaint included 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, fourth, fifth, sixth, eighth, 10th, 11th, and 12th days cover these in further detail.)

Updated, 9/29/23: This article has been updated with a statement from the San Francisco City Attorney's office and a statement from Assistant Chief Juratovac.

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