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Calif. city settles firefighter's harassment suit for $1.25M

The lawsuit alleged that Andrea Waters was denied training routinely given to her male counterparts and was held to different standards than her male colleagues

By Christi Warren
The Press Democrat

PETALUMA, Calif. — Petaluma will pay $1.25 million to a woman who used to be a firefighter for the city as part of a settlement with her over a lawsuit that claimed she was routinely harassed and discriminated against at work because of her gender.

Andrea Waters, now 37, was the second female firefighter in Petaluma’s history and the first in almost 40 years when she was hired by the city in June 2008.

Almost from the start at the Petaluma Fire Department, her 2014 suit alleged, she was denied training routinely given to her male counterparts, held to different standards than her male colleagues, and was deprived of separate changing, shower or sleeping facilities.

Before her first day of work, the lawsuit stated, “she was told words to the effect that there were people in the fire department who did not want her there, and that she should watch her back.”

Petaluma City Attorney Eric Danly did not comment on the specific claims Friday, two days after the city announced it had settled the case in December. The settlement admitted no liability on the part of the city. The case had yet to go to trial, but after more than two years of back-and-forth court proceedings, settling was “kind of a business decision,” Danly said.

Preparing its defense, the city hired an outside attorney to investigate Waters’ claims and prepare a report. It concluded her claims were “without merit,” Danly said in a written statement Wednesday.

In her lawsuit, Waters sought damages including back pay and future earnings and other financial relief, including attorney’s fees and costs.

In May 2014, six months before Waters filed her suit, the city received notice of her allegations in a memo from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was the first notice to the city of Waters’ claims, Danly said.

“It’s really frustrating for us that we didn’t get a chance to work with Ms. Waters when she was a city employee,” he said. “Given the chance, we would’ve absolutely done that. It’s a shame that so much public money was expended when it’s needed for core services, so it’s good to move beyond the case.”

Waters, who now lives in the East Bay, couldn’t be reached Friday. Her attorneys, Berkeley-based Deborah Kochan and Mat Stephenson, said that while they are happy with the resolution of the case, they were “disturbed” by the city’s public comments about the settlement.

They found fault especially with the city’s characterization of the settlement as a business choice.

“The entire thing just seems like the city hasn’t learned from this experience,” Stephenson said. “The idea that they paid $1.25 million basically … (because) it would be an inconvenience —”

Stephenson said that Waters repeatedly told Petaluma Fire Department supervisors about sexual harassment of her on the job.

“Not only did she tell them, but other officers told superior officers what was going on, and they had a group of old guard Neanderthal officers that not only ignored it, but celebrated it,” Stephenson said.

After taking a leave from her post, Waters resigned May 22, 2014, three days after the city received the federal notice of alleged discrimination.

Petaluma Fire Chief Leonard Thompson, who was not with the city when Waters was employed, and first came to the department in 2015, said the department now employs about 45 firefighters, all men.

“We hope that the next woman who goes to the Petaluma Fire Department has a very different experience,” Stephenson said.

Copyright 2017 The Press Democrat

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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