Ore. city settles suit, pays $93K to former FF-medic who alleged discrimination
Gabriel Watson said his job was “constructively terminated;” Portland officials said he was laid off after he blacked out on duty and refused to take a fitness test
PORTLAND, Ore. — The city of Portland last week settled a lawsuit brought by a former Fire & Rescue employee who alleged a decade’s worth of employment discrimination that he says forced him to resign his dream career.
Gabriel Watson, a firefighter and paramedic at the bureau since 2006, filed the suit in late 2021, naming his former employers and demanding a jury trial and economic damages upwards of $500,000.
Instead, Portland settled via an emergency city council ordinance, paying Watson $93,290.60 after an investigation concluded there was a risk the city would be found liable if the suit went to trial. On Monday, Portland’s city attorney, Robert Taylor, reiterated that his office felt it was prudent to settle given the uncertainty of litigation.
Watson, who started practicing law part-time in 2019, said in the suit he filed on his own behalf that despite years of exemplary performance as a paramedic, public information officer and member of the dive team at one of the busiest fire stations, the city “constructively terminated his position as a firefighter” but not before offering him a severance of one year’s pay and demanding he agree to waive any claims against the city in exchange.
In a January motion to dismiss Watson’s suit, representatives of the city denied the discrimination, writing that Watson was medically laid off in 2020 after he allegedly blacked out on the job and refused a medical fitness test.
The dispute goes back years. Watson was first investigated for disciplinary reasons in 2011, he said, because he took protected leave after his mother died of metastatic breast cancer.
Then in August 2012, Watson said he injured his back on the job when an obese patient unexpectedly collapsed on him. When Watson returned from disability leave, he said a captain pulled him aside and privately pressured him to resign from his position at the station — citing Watson’s injury. Watson claimed he was stripped from the technical rescue team and transferred to one of “the least desirable, least busy stations in the bureau.”
Between 2013 and 2018, Watson suffered other work-related back injuries, the suit said. During that time, Watson also had a blood clot and other health issues. Because they weren’t work-related injuries, Watson asked for protected personal sick leave. But the city didn’t respond to his requests to use the Family and Medical Leave Act, and Watson took what would become an unpaid leave of absence, repaying $14,000 though payroll deductions, the suit said.
In its motion to dismiss, the city said it put Watson on administrative leave in 2019 and then sought to medically lay him off in 2020 because he had Suboxone in his pocket when he allegedly lost consciousness at work. That’s a prescription medication used to treat opioid addiction, which Watson denied having a prescription for. The city claimed he refused to undergo a medical fitness for duty test. Watson denied this again Monday.
Watson attended law school while working full-time for the bureau and now works for the firm McKean Smith LLC litigating civil medical malpractice and discrimination suits similar to his own.
Watson said the suit was “never about the money.”
“Even getting $1 would’ve been enough recognition that the city was responsible,” Watson said. “The most eye-opening, shocking thing about all of it is that I’m a middle-aged white, married, guy with a law degree — if the city would wantonly do that to me, I can’t imagine what they’d do to others.”
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