Case Conclusion Date: 05.17.2005
Practice Area: Employment & Labor
Outcome: City Settles Sex-Discrimination Suit for $300,000
Description: As reported by the Los Angeles Daily Journal on June 6, 2005 City of Montebello Settles Sex-Discrimination Suit for $300,000 A By Eron Ben-Yehuda A Montebello Fire Department volunteer who worked just 84 hours over three and a half shifts for the city recently settled for $300,000 a claim of gender discrimination. Michele Barbera, age 33 and single at the time, alleged that her supervisors mistreated her because they disapproved of her decision to become roommates with a firefighter who had separated from his wife.Montebello Fire Chief Jimmie Lee Cox allegedly referred to her as a "fire groupie" and worried about a "possible love triangle" disrupting the department's operations.Barbera denied having an intimate relationship with her roommate and colleague Dave Browning during her month-long stint with the department in late 2002. She quit after management barred her from working at the same station house as Browning.. They became roommates when she moved down to Southern California and applied for a position as a volunteer at his department. From the get-go, Fire Department officials in Montebello wrongly assumed Barbera and Browning slept together, Wells says. It's just straight sexism and gender stereotyping," says Wells of Los Angeles. "All of thus because she was a woman who had the temerity to have a male room-mate. None of this would have happened if she had been a male. Barbera started working as an "auxiliaryâ€ crewmember in September 2002. The volunteer post is considered a stepping stone" for employment as a firefighter, Wells says. "At the first shift, she thought things were going great," he says. During her next training session, on Sept. 22, she joined a group of firefighters who answered a call of a medical emergency. At the scene, Barbera took a person's vital signs and allegedly "whispered" them to Browning. The crew captain criticized her stating that she was not there to work for "Dave," implying that they were an item. Wells says she announced the vital signs loud enough for the crew's paramedic to hear them, and that's all that's required. The next day she came to work, on Sept 27, she received a memo signed by Cox stating that she was no Ionger allowed to work the same shift as Browning. At his deposition, Cox said the gossip around the station was that Barbera was more than just roommates with Browning. He expressed concern about a "possible love triangle" that might create problems if Browning's wife had dropped off their child at the station. He pointed out that, before the memo was written, department supervisors had not asked either Browning or Barbera if they were romantically involved. "They began to speculate sort of like dirty old men," he says. Cox denied that he called Barbera a "fire groupie," although he said he had, heard her described that way by others. Cox declined a request for an interview. Barbera quit the program Oct. 10, 2002. She filed suit June 16, 2004. The claims she couldn't find another job in the fire service. She applied to several programs without success. Wells says that's because word had gotten around that she had claimed gender discrimination at Montebello. The experience brought on depression, she alleged. Colvin says Wells initially demanded' nearly $1 million to settle Colvin points out how little time she spent at the department. "A lot of people she mentioned in the lawsuit only saw her once," he says. "She never met Chief Cox. "I don't see where she suffered the'. degree of harm she's alleging that she had." Wells concedes that no one ever grabbed Barbera inappropriately or called her names to her face. But Wells says this case shows that, "even attempts at subtle discrimination canâ€™t be tolerated.