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Calif. firefighter-paramedic sues city, fire dept. for discrimination

The suit alleges the city and fire department terminated Carlo Teruel because he used accrued sick leave to care for his wife and two young sons

By Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

AMERICAN CANYON, Calif. — A former American Canyon fire fighter/paramedic is suing the city and its fire department for letting him go for defying what his lawyers say is an outdated, sexist organizational culture.

City officials, who are aware of the litigation, strongly deny the claims, city attorney William Ross said.

Lawyers for Carlo Teruel, a 34-year-old Vallejo resident, filed suit in Napa County Superior Court Jan. 31, against the American Canyon Fire Protection District and the City of American Canyon. The suit alleges the defendants violated California law by terminating Teruel’s employment because he used accrued sick leave to care for his wife and two young sons.

A UC Davis graduate, Teruel joined the American Canyon fire district with six years of experience as a firefighter-paramedic with the city of Berkeley, though, per protocol, his first 18 months were probationary.

During his probationary period,Teruel and his wife, a medical student, had their second son, and over the next several months his wife and both children got sick.

“Wanting to be there for his wife and young children, Firefighter Teruel took sick leave in order to care for them,” his lawyers said. “The lawsuit alleges that (fire district) management disapproved of Firefighter Teruel’s use of sick leave to care for his family. Seventeen months into his 18-month probationary period, even though he had received consistently positive feedback on his performance and had passed all of his tests, (the fire district) fired him.”

Ross said that because Teruel was on probation when he was let go, he was not technically fired — he just failed to pass probation. That’s just a small part of the city’s disagreement with the case as presented to the court.

The complaint alleges the department engaged in illegal gender stereotyping, punishing Teruel, “for breaking with traditional gender roles and taking time off work to be a supportive husband and father,” his lawyers said. “The complaint also alleges that the department violated California laws that protect the right of employees to take leave and sick days to care for ill or disabled family members.”

The attitude surprised Teruel, he said.

“When I was interviewing for the job,” Teruel said in a statement, “I told them I treated all my patients like family — that was my way of giving the best care as a Firefighter-Paramedic. I didn’t think my own family would be punished for needing me home to care for them.”

Though fire officials won’t tell him why they fired him, the use of sick time is the only thing Teruel said he can think of.

“All I know is that in January 2016 they gave me a project, which indicates they’re going to keep you,” he said. “I have never been reprimanded, never been in trouble, but I took sick days off to care for my family in March and was fired in April.”

The situation has “devastated” the Teruel family, which had to move out of their house and lost their medical insurance. They are living with his wife’s parents as she finishes her last year of medical school and he searches for another job. Teruel said he fears this “stain” on his professional reputation could prevent his finding another job in a highly competitive field.

“It’s not about the money; it’s about clearing my name,” he said. “I feel my family got punished for needing me, and that’s just totally wrong. No hard-working parent should be subjected to this just because they wanted to take care of their family.”

One of Teruel’s lawyers, Jennifer Liu, of the San Francisco-based Liu Law Firm, P.C., said American Canyon’s fire department appears to be one of many operating under an obsolete belief system.

“There are still outdated attitudes in many industries, especially industries like fire fighting, that historically have hired mostly men, where people think men should be the breadwinners, and women should be the caregivers,” Liu said. “We think it is a case of great interest — and importance — because it highlights the stigma and discrimination that men are facing in the workplace as they increasingly play more active roles as fathers.”

Sharon Vinick, of Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLP, another of his lawyers, added, “We hope Firefighter Teruel’s case will establish that men should not have to risk their jobs in order to be active fathers.”

Ross said the city and the fire protection district have 30 days to respond, and have no other comment except to say the city and its fire department are separate entities and that the city is not a proper party to the suit.

“The district generally disagrees with the facts and claims advanced in the complaint,” Ross said.

Copyright 2017 Times-Herald