Lawsuit Filed Against City of Los Angeles for Retaliation: Firefighters Blow the Whistle on Unsafe Buildings
— Plaintiffs subjected to discrimination, harassment and retaliation; lawsuit unveils history of racial discrimination in department —
McNicholas & McNicholas has filed a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles on behalf of six Los Angeles Fire Department (“LAFD”) fire inspectors who allegedly suffered discrimination, harassment, and retaliation for reporting various acts of misconduct and unsafe inspections of buildings in the greater Los Angeles area. All six plaintiffs work in Fire Prevention Bureau (“FPB”).
The lawsuit also states that FPB has a long history of racial animosity towards African Americans and women firefighters, and anyone associated with them. Within the Department, those who join FPB are referred to as “too lazy and afraid to fight fire.”
Chief Jerome Boyd, Captains Gary Carpenter, Andre Johnson, David Riles, and Inspectors Glenn Martinez and Aaron Walker of the LAFD informed their department that many building fire inspections were performed by untrained inspectors who were specifically directed to rush through inspections. This resulted in the creation of falsified documents, ultimately putting the lives of citizens and firefighters in jeopardy. These rushed, untrained inspections were a result of “Operation Catch Up” – a plan hatched by LAFD brass to resolve the backlog of fire inspections.
Due to this systemic racial and gender-based prejudice, the discrimination, harassment and retaliation worsened when the plaintiffs reported up the chain of command and to their union that substandard and unlawful building inspections were being conducted.
“‘Operation Catch Up’ should really be called ‘Operation Catch Fire.’ Not only was safety compromised in all of these buildings, but the firefighters who attempted to reveal this were punished for it,” said Partner Matthew McNicholas, who is also Panel Counsel to the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City. “When you don’t inspect a church, school, a hospital, or a 40-story building properly, and something goes wrong – it goes very wrong. This is not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s only a matter of ‘when.’ These firefighters stepped forward and the Los Angeles Fire Department went to great lengths not to fix the problem, but to ensure that these firefighters didn’t have a career with the Department anymore.” In fact, when plaintiffs and their colleagues reported the misconduct to the Union, the LAFD sent high ranking members to “take names” of those complaining.
The role of the FPB, a bureau within the LAFD, encompasses fire prevention; the investigation of the cause, origin, and circumstances of fires; the elimination of fire and life safety hazards in buildings, marine vessels, aircraft, and vehicles; and enforcement of the basic building regulations and codes of the State Fire Marshal as they apply to the City of Los Angeles in matters regarding fire, panic, and explosion safety.
African American firefighters within the Department are known to be subjected to higher levels of scrutiny. All of their assignments, work performance, projects, and/or complaints are inspected more closely than their white counterparts. Not only were the plaintiffs’ reports of unlawful activity to their supervisors ignored, but as a result of their whistleblowing, these firefighters were retaliated against – stripped of their responsibilities, excluded from decision-making processes, prevented from working overtime or taking vacation and more.
The plaintiffs reported what they reasonably believed to be violations of various fire, safety and building codes, and other state and/or federal regulations, rules, and statutes. They reported untrained inspectors being sent to inspect public facilities, engaging in rushed inspections, or otherwise not following the various codes and regulations that govern the inspections. These rushed inspections misled the public into believing their buildings were safe.
“Operation Catch-Up,” an initiative launched by FPB to resolve the significant backlog in conducting fire inspections, was exposed in a June 2015 Los Angeles Times article titled “LAFD inspectors accuse supervisors of cutting corners, ignoring fire hazards.”
Even though the plaintiffs engaged in protected activity by reporting various acts of misconduct and addressing the safety concerns with “Operation Catch-Up,” plaintiffs were subjected to retaliation, harassment, and a hostile work environment, and feared for their careers. The Fire Marshal, Chief John Vidovich even stated that those who were critical of “Operation Catch-Up” would be “dealt with.” In retaliation for engaging in protected activity, all six firefighters were denied promotions, overtime opportunities and valued assignments; subjected to fabricated charges of misconduct; falsely accused of theft and fraud; and for all practical purposes have had their careers ended at the hands of the Los Angeles Fire Department.