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Ventura County

Firehouse Hostile to Woman, Jury Says

Trial: Ventura County firefighter wins $28,000--far short of damages she sought--in sex discrimination case. Her supervisor is cleared.

July 25, 2002|TRACY WILSON and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The Ventura County Fire Department discriminated against a female firefighter by subjecting her to a hostile work environment on the basis of her gender, a jury ruled Wednesday.

But jurors awarded firefighter Anne Merino only a fraction of the damages she had sought, a little more than $28,000, and cleared her male supervisor of wrongdoing.

Standing outside the courtroom after the verdict was announced, Merino looked stunned and upset.

"I'm glad that they found the department responsible, but we are disappointed with the amount," said attorney Lauren Bullock, who represented the 37-year-old Long Beach resident in her discrimination case.

One of only 16 female firefighters in the 440-member department, Merino sued her employer and supervisor, Capt. Damon Dalton, last year for allegedly subjecting her to a hostile workplace.

Specifically, Merino alleged that Dalton did not want a woman on his crew at Station 43 in Simi Valley and ostracized her on a daily basis for about a year.

Bullock argued in closing statements this week that Dalton gave her client "the cold shoulder" and "froze her out" of station activities. Bullock told jurors that the department did nothing to correct the situation after it was brought to the attention of the human resources department.

But Oxnard attorney Alan Wisotsky argued that Dalton, despite his discomfort in working in close quarters with a woman, tried to include Merino in station activities and gave her a sterling review.

"Merino was an involved member of the crew," said Wisotsky, who represented Dalton and the Fire Department. "He didn't treat her any differently."

After a two-week civil trial in Ventura County Superior Court, a majority of jurors agreed. They determined that Dalton, a 37-year-old Thousand Oaks resident, did not discriminate against Merino.

They found the department liable, however, for creating a hostile work environment by not dealing with Merino's situation or properly training its employees.

"I felt the department was aware of the problem and never really addressed the issue," said juror Angel Rodriguez, a Ventura resident.

Rodriguez said the department needs to better educate its employees about the importance of gender equality in the workplace.

Ventura County Fire Chief Bob Roper said such steps are already underway.

Roper, who was called as a witness during the civil trial, said Wednesday that fire officials recognized the need for additional gender training four years ago when the department's long-term strategic plan was drafted.

"I told the jury," Roper said of his testimony, "that we want to hire someone to come in and consult, and I'm going to have an opportunity to do that soon."

Roper will fly to Norfolk, Va., next month to attend a national conference, at which he hopes to hire a diversity expert to prepare a mandatory one-day training course for firefighters next spring.

Meanwhile, the department's 440 firefighters will be required to view a 2 1/2-hour video next month on gender-discrimination laws. The videos will be mailed to each station in the county, Roper said.

Cadets at the county's fire training academy in Camarillo currently receive about five hours of instruction, out of a total 13 weeks, on gender-discrimination laws.

In addition to the classwork, Roper said he is planning to form an appeals committee, which will have the power to investigate employee complaints on such matters.

After Wednesday's verdict, Wisotsky said the damages awarded by the jury were substantially less than what the county had offered to settle the case with Merino, who is currently on disability leave.

Wisotsky declined to specify an amount, but said "it was a substantial six-figure offer."

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