Firefighter accuses chief, male colleagues of rampant sexism, harassment

LisaMarie Mason said for 10 years she endured a workplace where she was denied training that male firefighters were granted and was subjected to sexist comments

By Sam Stanton
The Sacramento Bee

EL DORADO HILLS, Calif. — LisaMarie Mason began her firefighting career with the El Dorado Hills Fire Department in June 2007, the only female in her class.

For the next decade, Mason claims, she endured a workplace where she was denied training that male firefighters were granted and was subjected to a barrage of sexist comments from her superiors.

“This country went wrong when it allowed women to vote,” then-Battalion Chief Dave Roberts allegedly told her, then nicknamed her “Homeplate” when he discovered she was single because “everyone scores.”

“Women should be at home with children, not working at the firehouse,” another chief allegedly said.

Mason, 37, claims she was physically assaulted twice after complaining about inappropriate behavior, forced to hug one of her bosses and threatened by another with a knife, who allegedly said, “I’ll cut your tits off.”

Now, Mason’s complaints have spawned a federal sex discrimination and harassment lawsuit, as well as an outside investigation of the department ordered by the board of directors for the agency, which serves El Dorado Hills, Rescue and Latrobe.

No one involved in the case is speaking publicly.

Roberts, who is now the fire chief and is accused in the lawsuit of improper comments and behavior that included hitting Mason in the head, declined to comment to The Bee Wednesday. Instead, he referred a reporter to a statement issued by the department.

“We’re aware of the allegations, and they either have been or are currently under investigation by outside investigators with the full support of the Board of Directors, Fire Chief and his staff,” the statement said. “Beyond that, the district does not comment on internal personnel matters.”

Mason’s attorneys, Lawrance Bohm, Robert Boucher and Daniel Traverso, declined to make her available for an interview.

The 29-page lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Sacramento accuses the department of a “culture of sexism” that governed much of her career there.

The problems began almost immediately, the lawsuit says, when Mason was denied rotation assignments at firehouses because she was told “there were not enough bathrooms in the stations to accommodate another female firefighter.”

She complained, and for the next two years was subjected to numerous incidents of harassment, discrimination and retaliation, the lawsuit says, including being told by one colleague that “the only committee you’ll be on is the makeup committee…you know, lipstick and mascara.”

Mason’s lawsuit claims she witnessed her supervisor engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate. After she reported it, the suit says, she was grabbed by her neck and dragged across the office by a friend of her boss, then given a verbal reprimand.

In the summer of 2014, the lawsuit says, Mason told the department she was pregnant and intended to take an engineer’s exam.

The department responded by scheduling the exam for November, when Mason was in her third trimester, and changed the exam to include a requirement that she climb a ladder, the lawsuit says. Mason’s suit says she passed the exam, but was not promoted for another year.

By 2015, Mason’s suit claims, she was being subjected to “unnecessary touching” by Roberts that included hugging or pulling on her hair.

“Roberts became increasingly dismissive of (Mason) over the months and refused to communicate with her because she did not engage with him in a flirtatious way,” the lawsuit says.

Mason also claims that on Feb. 4, 2016, Roberts walked by her at a fire station and struck her head “in a downward motion.”

“(Mason) did not say anything in response,” the lawsuit says. “She adjusted her hat and started crying as he walked away.”

The abuse continued, Mason claims, including an incident where one of her superiors cleared out her locker while she was away and left her personal belongings in trash bags.

By 2017, Mason began to develop chest pains and shortness of breath and took time off because of the stress of her work environment, according to the lawsuit.

She returned to work on March 1, 2017, but continued to suffer from chest pains, the lawsuit says.

In April, the department praised Mason on its Facebook page, noting that she had “worked adamantly” on getting automated external defibrillators installed at four fire stations.

But on May 18 Mason complained to the department’s board of directors at a public meeting, according to minutes of the session.

“Lisa Mason, member of public and employee, spoke about a variety of workplace concerns,” the board minutes state.

Following that meeting, Mason was placed on involuntary leave while an investigation was launched, the lawsuit says.

That leave is continuing, with Mason unable to return to work, keep up with mandatory training or prepare for promotional exams, according to her suit, which seeks damages for sex discrimination and harassment, disability discrimination, retaliation and assault and battery.

Copyright 2018 The Sacramento Bee

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