Lesbian assistant SF fire chief shows resolve on opening day of discrimination trial

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday September 7, 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

The lesbian assistant San Francisco Fire Department chief suing the city claiming whistleblower retaliation and discrimination wept on the stand during dramatic testimony at the trial's opening day September 7.

The civil 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. I signed it because it was the right thing to do," Juratovac said.

Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, asked why it was 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, Cannata laid out seven disciplinary actions that'd been taken 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.

Cannata claimed Juratovac would be facing further discipline had she not sued back in 2021, as the Bay Area Reporter covered (https://www.ebar.com/story.php?ch=news&sc=news&id=305437) at the time.

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.

"She could tell they weren't going to stop," Cannata said. "When [Fire] Chief [Jeanine] Nicholson started in 2019, there were three [investigations] going on at the time. ... So far, there have not been any disciplinary hearings since [the suit]."

Cannata also said in the opening statement that personal animus against her client by some in the fire department led to her being passed over for promotions and assignments, and that Juratovac was also retaliated against after reporting a drunken, on-duty party at SFFD's Station 11 in Noe Valley where a firefighter had alleged sexual harassment.

City's opening

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."

Frenzen also said that the number seven is not a correct characterization of the number of investigations into Juratovac.

"Three and four were not really investigations," Frenzen said. "No. 7, Chief Nicholson elected not to bring any disciplinary action at all."

Juratovac was the only person to testify September 7. Taking the stand, Cannata walked her through her life and career. She came to San Francisco at age 7; though she was born in New York City, she grew up in South Korea, where her parents met while her father was in the United States military. She has two close relatives in the SFFD, and oversees the city's Division No. 3, including South of Market, Potrero Hill, the Bayview, the Mission, Noe Valley, Diamond Heights, Lake Merced, and Ingleside.

"The assistant chief is the incident commander of every working fire" within their assigned areas, Juratovac explained. There are six assistant chiefs in the department.

Cannata and Juratovac went over the first disciplinary action and part of the second. In the first, Juratovac complained with higher-ups about the way she was treated while responding to a February 13, 2014 fire on Joost Street.

She said that Bryan Rubenstein, currently deputy chief of operations, upbraided her about not wearing a mask that had been damaged after she fell down the stairs while fighting a blaze in an illegal cannabis grow.

"It had been building up," she said, explaining that she and Rubenstein had been testy.

"It moved now to a fire ground situation, from a fire house situation. I felt on the fire ground, it was dangerous," she said.

However, the situation ended with Juratovac being written up for allegedly saying "'yes, sir' ... in a mimicking fashion," according to an SFFD letter to Juratovac, which also told her that "a lack of professionalism was displayed by you."

"It's always upsetting to get written up," Juratovac testified. "I did not know what I did to get written up."

Juratovac also took a remark she was just "excited" to be a reference to her gender.

In the second instance, in 2015, Juratovac told a firefighter whose name was redacted that he could not drive fire department vehicles after his license was revoked following a DUI.

However, it was Juratovac that got written up for not following notification protocols.

Juratovac testified the department should have already known about the DUI because, typically, ISB — the department's internal investigative bureau — is supposed to be informed within 24 hours when an SFFD employee is arrested on suspicion of DUI.

"If this man had a DUI, ISB certainly knew," Juratovac said. "They did know."

The trial continues September 8 in Department 303 of San Francisco County Superior Court, 400 McAllister Street, at 9:30 a.m.

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