SFFD trial: Former fire chief says plaintiff a 'role model,' not a 'victim'

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday September 14, 2023
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Former San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White leaves San Francisco Superior Court September 14. Photo: John Ferrannini
Former San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White leaves San Francisco Superior Court September 14. Photo: John Ferrannini

The former chief of the San Francisco Fire Department came out of retirement to testify Thursday that the lesbian assistant fire chief suing the city for discrimination and retaliation is not a victim.

"I would say she experienced difficulties with her colleagues, but I wouldn't characterize her as a victim," Joanne Hayes-White, San Francisco's fire chief from 2004-2019, said of Nicol Juratovac on the stand September 14. "She's had a lot of success in the department and is a role model."

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

Hayes-White testified just before Tom Siragusa, an assistant chief who is also now retired and who Juratovac claims was the genesis of several acts of retaliation and discrimination against her.

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.

In her opening statement September 7, Juratovac's attorney, Therese Y. Cannata, of Cannata O'Toole and Olson, laid out seven disciplinary investigations that'd been undertaken against her client, which she claims were part of a pattern of retaliation and discrimination against her just for doing her job.

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.

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

Hayes-White was brought by the plaintiff's attorneys as an adverse witness; Siragusa, on the other hand, is a defense witness for the city who was called up of order, as the plaintiff's attorneys have not rested yet.

Hayes-White testified that she started in the department in 1990. This was two years after a federal court issued a consent decree to the department, ordering it to hire a workforce of at least 40% minorities and 10% women. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that by 1995, the department was 31% minority and 5.3% women.

"I was amongst the first 20 or so women who came in," Hayes-White recalled. "I would say the overall goal would be to have a workforce reflective of the community we were serving."

Eventually, she became the first woman to lead the department. The current chief, Jeanine Nicholson, is also a woman, and a lesbian, making her the first openly LGBTQ person to lead the department.

Hayes-White said she remembered Juratovac as "hardworking," "well-prepared," and "articulate" — and that sometimes interpersonal issues between firefighters can reach a fever pitch because of the flip side of qualities, such as assertiveness and confidence, that the department wants in its employees.

"There's a lot of personality in the fire service," Hayes-White said. "Most people who sign up for the job are assertive, aggressive, and confident. It should be said that you also work in 24-hour shifts — it's not a 9-5 — there are oftentimes more than any other workplace except the military that the people you're recruiting come together and there are interpersonal conflicts."

Juratovac was one of those people, Hayes-White said.

"There were times Chief Juratovac thought that she was disrespected," Hayes-White said. "Other people felt disrespected by her. That was pretty common."

Cannata asked if female firefighters experienced or reported more issues with colleagues than male firefighters.

"It's hard to say," Hayes-White said. "When I came in, in 1990, there were some long 24-hour shifts. ... it is an intense job — rich in tradition, that's good — but over time a little more welcoming to a large group of people. We are the most diverse department in the world."

When asked about the "making the Department GREAT AGAIN" sign mentioned September 8 that Juratovac had ordered removed, Hayes-White demurred. Cannata asked if it represented the views of some people who wanted to return "to a time before more diversity."

"It's hard for me to get into minds but as a rule-follower, it did not have authorization," she said.

Hayes-White rescinded the third and fourth investigations into Juratovac, which regarded interactions with people at San Francisco International Airport, where Juratovac was then stationed.

In cross-examining Hayes-White, Deputy City Attorney Amy Frenzen asked if she'd consider Juratovac a victim, mentioning the latter's testimony from September 11 that the investigations were "a black mark" on her career.

"I would not refer to them as a black mark," Hayes-White said. "Over the course of my time there, there were hundreds of investigations. Some led to discipline and some did not."

Hayes-White also testified that she was involved in investigations into two of the six assistant chiefs during her time as chief. When Cannata asked if any of those had seven investigations, the city's attorneys objected on the grounds that it was a "complete hypothetical," and Ramos Bolanos sustained the objection.

Assistant chief takes stand

Siragusa testified after Hayes-White. Juratovac had said that the retaliation began after she signed a declaration on behalf of Larry Jacobs, a Black fire recruit who was experiencing bullying.

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

Siragusa testified that he told Deputy City Attorney Adam Shapiro that he was "not aware," until his deposition in this case, that Juratovac had signed the Jacobs declaration.

Juratovac had also said investigation No. 5, regarding personal business on duty, happened after Siragusa's friend, Janet Oliver, a driver with the department, had reported her.

Siragusa said that when he required Oliver's services, he didn't recall going on errands "other than maybe an ATM [withdrawal] or a cup of coffee."

He also said the two were involved socially to the extent that "I'd go for walks on Marina Green and there were a couple times that she joined me."

Cannata brought up texts between the two about Juratovac, including one with an "exploding head" emoji that mentioned he was having difficulty working with her. Siragusa testified that he did not recall the texts.

"It's possible that I sent that emoji," Siragusa said.

Siragusa said he reported Juratovac for not immediately telling the department about a member's DUI, which prompted investigation No. 2. Juratovac testified September 7 that ISB, the department's internal investigative bureau, should have reported it within 24 hours.

"It was an important matter I should have been made aware of," Siragusa said. "ISB is not in her [Juratovac's] chain of command. It is through me, to the administration."

Juratovic's attorney, Cannata, also called Charles Crane, a retired SFFD battalion chief, to the stand. He testified that with regard to the ladder drill, investigation No. 6, he and Juratovac had talked about the performance of firefighter Lauren Canning the previous day, and that he felt it was OK that she wanted to test Canning's abilities, even if it was out of the ordinary.

"If you can include it into a proper drill, you can single out a person," Crane said, adding he didn't mean 'single out' in a negative way.

"As an assistant chief, you're more concerned with the procedure. You want to make sure procedure is followed," he added. "It is not punitive, it's supportive."

The trial is anticipated to continue September 15 in Department 303 of San Francisco County Superior Court, 400 McAllister Street, at 9:30 a.m.

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