SAN DIEGO, Calif. Four firefighters who allege they were sexually harassed after being forced to participate in the annual gay Pride Parade are a step closer to filing a lawsuit against the department after a state agency approved the men's right-to-sue claim.
Plaintiff attorney Teresa Mendoza, an attorney with the West Coast Regional Office of the Thomas More Law Center, said the Department of Fair Employment and Housing approved the firefighters' claim Aug. 13. Securing the claim is the first step required in suing the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Mendoza said the suit likely will be filed in San Diego Superior Court within a few weeks.
According to Hillcrest-based firefighters John Ghiotto, Jason Hewitt, Chad Allison and Alexander Kane, department supervisors ordered them to participate in the July 21 parade after a previously scheduled volunteer crew had to back out at the last minute.
The firefighters said in their 16-page complaint that they objected to the assignment numerous times, but were told they would face disciplinary action if they didn't participate.
They allege that during the parade, they were subjected to vulgar language and obscene gestures. One man, they said, approached the fire fighters while they were driving along the parade route. When the firefighters ignored the offensive behavior, they were verbally taunted by the crowd.
"The experience left me feeling humiliated, embarrassed and offended by this event," Ghiotto, the crew's captain, wrote in his statement to the state employment board. "These unsolicited and unwanted behaviors from a few individuals of the public toward us reduced our morale as well as the integrity of the workplace, and destroyed our professionalism.
"Our department and our supervisors violated the city's own EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) policy by knowing that we were going to be subjected to this type of behavior and forced us to be put into this position against our will. As a supervisor I felt disgusted and embarrassed that I had to subject my crew to this type of behavior."
Hewitt, the crew engineer who is responsible for driving the rig, wrote in his statement that he had to choose between his moral beliefs and his job, including future promotions.
"This wasn't right," Hewitt wrote. "I was forced into a situation that would compromise what I hold true and what I believe in, my reputation, my character, my integrity, my morals and my religion."
Taunting at work
In addition to on-site harassment, the firefighters said they also had to endure harassing comments from co-workers at other stations.
According to their statements, the firefighters were so upset after the parade that their supervisor temporarily placed them on "administrative out of service" status during a portion of their shift.
After media reports of the incident surfaced, Fire Chief Tracy Jarman said in a statement that she was initiating "a fact-finding investigation" into the matter. The department also announced the immediate implementation of a revised policy that said it would only recruit volunteers for the controversial parade and, if volunteers could not be found, they would be offered time-and-a-half to participate. Jarman, who is openly gay, said department employees had participated in the event for 15 years without a problem.
"This is the first time, to the best of my knowledge, that a sexual harassment complaint has been alleged, by crews … I believe it's important to investigate this complaint, and if something inappropriate did happen, we will address it," Jarman said.
But in their statements, the firefighters said others in the department acknowledged that supervisors have had a difficult time every year finding willing participants for the parade.
In his complaint, engineer Hewitt suggested that with widespread staff and equipment shortages within the department that active fire trucks should not be used for any parade or special functions. Only reserve rigs and volunteers should be made available, he said.
Despite the new policy change, Mendoza said the plaintiffs will move ahead with the suit because the language does not go far enough in protecting city employees.
"If you read it carefully, it's not very clear," said Mendoza. "It mentions using volunteers, but it does not expressly say only volunteers … It's not clear they won't order it."
Mendoza argues that the message and content of the Pride parade renders it more political in nature than one honoring an established holiday. She said First Amendment protections mandate that people can't be coerced into participating in such events.
Her clients will be seeking an injunction to prevent the city from forcing employees to participate and monetary damages.
"They don't object to the parade itself or the gay rights movement," she said. "It's that they were subjected to some really vulgar language and gestures and they were forced to endure it by their employers.
Since the claim has been made public, Ghiotti said he as received threats and he an another plaintiff have been transferred to different stations in a non-retaliatory effort to quell some of the fallout, attorney Mendoza said.
Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center said the public employees were made to be pawns.
"These firefighters dedicated their lives to save the lives of others," the attorney said in a news release. "They did not sign on to become unwilling props to a controversial political and social agenda."