San Jose--San Jose will pay $395,000 to settle a gender-bias lawsuit by two female fire captains claiming that Chief William McDonald passed them over for promotions that went to less-qualified men.
The settlement in the lawsuit filed last June by Debra Ward and Patricia Tapia suggests that gender bias concerns continue to plague the department even under the new leadership of McDonald, an outsider who took over two years ago. The city in 2009 paid fire engineer Julie LaBlanc $200,000 to settle her lawsuit over pornographic magazines in her fire station.
"I think it's a very good settlement," said Angela Alioto, the former San Francisco supervisor who, as an attorney, handled all three women's cases. "My clients are keeping their job. The goal is not to have women leave the fire department."
Tapia has since been promoted to a battalion chief.
San Jose admits no wrongdoing in the settlement, which the City Council is expected to approve Tuesday. City Attorney Rick Doyle said in a memorandum to the council that the settlement is reasonable "in light of the risks and costs inherent in litigation."
McDonald did not respond to a request for comment.
According to the complaint, in the department of about 628 firefighters, only five of 156 captains and two of 21 battalion chiefs were women. Tapia had worked in the department since 1986 and Ward since 1988.
Ward and Tapia had both sought promotions to battalion chief in 2009, and the complaint said Ward was top-ranked and Tapia ranked eighth in testing for the position. But the complaint said the department promoted nine men to battalion chief, all of whom scored lower than Ward and some of whom scored lower than Tapia in testing. Two had a history of disciplinary issues, the complaint said.
McDonald could not explain to the women why they were not promoted, other than to assert that they were "not ready," the complaint said. After being passed over for the job, the women were told to train one of the men who had been promoted to battalion chief, it said.
The complaint further asserted that the promoted firefighters had close personal ties to McDonald, attending ball games with him and dining at his home, and that they also belong to a Christian firefighter group led by one of the deputy chiefs.
When Ward and Tapia pressed their superiors to explain why they were passed over, they were told that subjective interview evaluations factored more than their high test scores.
The women's plight even prompted LaBlanc to ask McDonald last year "why he has not promoted any women," the suit said, to which he replied that promotions were based solely on merit.
In addition to gender-bias allegations, the complaint alleges that Tapia was discriminated against as a Latina and single mother. She claimed she was told that she would be overwhelmed if promoted because she also leads a Latino firefighter group and is a single mother who coaches Little League.
The suit said both women were hassled for questioning the promotion process, causing them emotional distress that made them physically ill.
"It was blatant," Alioto said. "This shouldn't happen. Here were two wonderful women who want to save lives, and they're passed over for men they had trained."
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