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San Diego Firefighters Win Harassment Suit

Jim Burroway

February 18th, 2009

A San Diego jury yesterday found that four firefighters were sexually harassed after being ordered to participate in a gay pride parade. The jury awarded the four $34,300 in damages, which must be split between the group. That works out to a little over $8,500 per firefighter, before attorney fees. Plaintiff’s attorney Charles LiMandri has indicated he will ask the judge to have the city of San Diego pay his legal fees.

The firemen claimed that they faced “faced pervasive or severe harassment from spectators and participants” while riding a fire engine in the July 2007 Gay Pride parade. The experience, they said, made them suffer stress-related problems such as headaches, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome. But an examination of their original complaints revealed that their sense of being offended came from two fronts:

  • Even the most innocuous of calls (”Hey, Honey”, or “look at the big firemen”) were viewed as insults, affronts, or harassment. 
  • They were offended that they were lectured by anti-gay protesters. Since they were not gay, they felt that they didn’t deserve to be lectured — as if anyone deserves such a lecture, gay or straight.

The Jurors deliberated for about two and a half days before reaching the verdict. During an earlier trial last September, that jury was not able to reach a verdict. Plaintiffs’ attorney Charles LiMandri had asked for up to $1 million for each of this four clients. He didn’t ask for an award during the second trial.

Attorneys for the city have indicated that they will appeal the verdict. The San Diego Fire Department has since changed its policy, which now calls for volunteers to participate in parades.

Comments

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a. mcewen
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

The policy was only asking for trouble.

I hate when things like this happens because you just know it will be religious right talking points and fodder for videos like “Silencing Christians” no matter how silly it is.

David C.
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

There are really two (at least) problems here: 1) abuse of statutes that were designed to protect workers from harassment by supervisors and coworkers, and 2) the interpretation of these as applying to a situation into which workers were assigned and over which their supervisors had no real control.

There is no way that the “abuse” could have been “pervasive” or “sustained”. The men in question were riding in a fire-truck traveling down the parade route, never even really close to spectators, and there was certainly never any physical contact. I think these men saw an opportunity to cash in on something and were likely prompted by a lawyer that saw an opportunity to get in on a piece of the action. There certainly was no work-related quid pro quo, and they were otherwise insulated from the crowd. If this is an example of straight machismo, well, I think these guys are cry-babies.

Nevertheless, the city should have always asked for volunteers and never “required” anybody’s participation in San Diego Pride. Of course, you don’t see police officers who are “required” to be there to maintain order complaining, but that’s a different story I suppose.

Timothy Kincaid
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

This lawsuit had little to do with harassment of any sort and MUCH to do with establishing the existence of gay people as an offense to others.

“The money was never an issue for us. We never went in it for the money,” Ghiotto said. “We should never have even had to go to court.”

Ghiotto said the verdict “goes to show that there was some wrongdoing and we finally got the truth out and we prevailed and I’m happy with it.”

The amount of money is small, but LiMandri doesn’t care about that. LiMandri is on an anti-gay crusade and they have just won a VERY important victory.

The basis for this lawsuit was far less in what the fire-fighters might have heard or experienced from the middle of the street six feet up with the windows closed and earphones on and everything to do with “I don’t want to be around gay people”.

LiMandri’s goal all along was to find that gay pride parades are offensive and harassing. Once that is established, it provides a basis for every homophobe in the nation to sue their employer for the harassment of providing police or fire service in gay neighborhoods, the harassment of health inspectors going into gay restaurants or clubs, the harassment of social workers going to gay households.

Workers can now refuse to be around gay people or threaten to sue.

I very much hope the City wins on appeal.

Stefano A
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

As an expat of Hillcrest, I could not agree with you more Timothy. Specifically with regard to the motivations underlying this trial.

LiMandri’s goal all along was to find that gay pride parades are offensive and harassing.

Part of this whole ordeal was him trying to get the courts to say that the firefighter’s participation was an infringement on their First Amendment rights as well.

Fortunately in that suit LiMandri and the firefighters also brought, San Diego Superior Court Judge Michael Anello noted in a written ruling that . . .

citizens must accept some limits on their constitutional rights when they enter government service.

According to that ruling, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department acted in accordance with state and local anti-discrimination laws by participating in the parade. City officials considered the department’s presence in the event part of its “community-building activities.”

Also, reading the comments of the jurors, although they voted 12-0 only on the first and last questions (of the 9) they were asked to give a verdict on:

The first question asked: “Were the plaintiffs subjected to unwanted harassing conduct because of their gender?” The last question asked: “What are the plaintiffs’ damages?”

The question with the slimmest support was the second one, which was the question the jury in the first trial deadlocked on. It asked: “Was the harassment of the plaintiffs severe or pervasive?” For that question, the jury voted 9-3 for each firefighter.

It was perfectly clear that their verdicts were not really based on harassment, but what they were really voting on in this case was the issue of whether or not the firfighters should have been required to attend.

An already moot point by the time of this trial.

David Roberts
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

Timothy said:

This lawsuit had little to do with harassment of any sort and MUCH to do with establishing the existence of gay people as an offense to others.

Agreed.

Joel
February 18th, 2009 | LINK

I hope this wont be the beginning of a recoil effect on gay rights.

Truly sad.

Jason D
February 19th, 2009 | LINK

I’ve said from the beginning that it’s rather ridiculous.

If you’ve ever been to any large parade or outdoor gathering the crowd itself is so loud that it’s deafening. It’s impossible to talk on the phone, and quite a challenge to hear someone standing right next to you unless they are shouting in your ear. Being the focus of the crowd’s energy, not to mention music from floats and nearby buildings, sitting six feet above the crowd in a noisy vehicle — it’s rather hard to believe they heard anything specific, and even more ridiculous that driving such an large and imposing vehicle they could feel at all threatened by the crowd.
They were essentially driving a tank through a disco.

Scott P.
February 19th, 2009 | LINK

Timothy, I think it a real stretch to go from being required to attend a parade and fighting a fire, inspecting a club and providing services. Police, firefighters and social workers can’t decide which laws they’ll enforce, which fires they’ll fight or which services they’ll provide. That would be like a fry-cook refusing to cook a burger. It’s an essential part of the job, not a sideline. The cook may refuse to wear a mascot costume out front, but he can’t refuse to actually cook.

Timothy Kincaid
February 19th, 2009 | LINK

Scott P.

Perhaps you were unaware that the firefighters that sued were stationed at the Hillcrest fire station at 9th and University. That part of University is called “Rainbow Mile”. The pride parade literally went past the building in which they work.

A jury has declared that they can refuse to associate with the people just outside the door. They can refuse to be part of community outreach to the community in which they are located.

Scott P.
February 19th, 2009 | LINK

I see. So, if a fire breaks out in “their” neighborhood, you think this decision gives them the right to sit in their fire-station and refuse to do what they’re paid for. Is that what you’re saying?

Do you honestly think that if that happens each and everyone of them wouldn’t be fired? There’s a hell of a lot of difference between being in a parade, which is extraneous to their jobs, and actually refusing to do what they are PAID to do.

Again, no person can legally refuse to do the job they are hired to do without being fired with just cause.

I honestly think you are being hysterical in imagining that that would happen. I may be wrong, but I don’t think so.

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