Sexual harassment suit looms for city
After leaving the Petaluma Fire Department in June amidst allegations that she was sexually harassed by her male colleagues, firefighter Andrea Waters has retained legal counsel and appears to be gearing up for a lawsuit against the City of Petaluma.
A memo sent to all employees of the Petaluma Fire Department on July 14 by Fire Chief Larry Anderson states that Waters 'is contemplating filing a lawsuit' and as such, all employees are required to preserve any communication that mentions her directly or indirectly, including emails and text message, 'whether or not Ms. Waters was the author or recipient of the communications and whether or not the communication specifically refers to her by name.'
The memo goes on to say, 'Her counsel wants to ensure that all members of the Petaluma Fire Department preserve all information and data not only on devices owned and/or controlled by the City of Petaluma, but also on personally owned computers, telephones or other devices.'
City Attorney Eric Danly confirmed that Waters has filed two claims against the city, one related to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which covers sexual harassment claims, and one for unemployment.
Behind closed doors on Monday, the Petaluma City Council is expected to discuss Waters' case with Danly to prepare for 'anticipated litigation' and the city's response to the claims.
'She's obviously consulted an attorney,' said David Levine, a professor of law at University of California's Hastings College of the Law who specializes in federal and state civil procedure.
He explained that, for an employee to pursue a lawsuit against a city body, they must first file a claim.
'This happens all the time,' Levine said. 'A claim has been presented, and they are legally obligated to respond.' He added that the city can either choose to settle the claim, which typically involves paying the injured party for damages, or reject it as unfounded.
'A huge percentage of these claims are rejected,' Levine said. 'If they reject it, she can then proceed with a lawsuit.'
Danly said his office would conduct its own investigation into the claims, which may include hiring an outside investigator or using Petaluma Police Department officials.
While Andrea Waters has never spoken publicly about her experience, two sources with knowledge of the department confirmed in May that she was repeatedly subjected to inappropriate comments from fellow firefighters, which ultimately contributed to her resignation.
'She really had to put up with a lot,' said one source.
Waters was hired in June 2008, and was the first female firefighter to join the department in more than 30 years. As firefighters share living quarters while on long shifts, the department made some arrangements to accommodate a woman in the male-dominated firehouse. Locks were installed on the bathroom doors and curtains were hung to give her privacy around her bunk, although sources disagree about whether they properly obscured her. One source claimed that the male firefighters she shared space with could see over or around the curtains, and made her uncomfortable on several occasions by commenting on her body while she changed clothes.
According to Levine, if the case goes to trial, Waters' legal team must prove that her supervisors knew that the harassment was occurring, but did not stop it, for her to secure a judgment. He said her testimony, along with any written records such as emails or text messages, will be critical to proving that point.
'She would have to show that there was a hostile environment that was tolerated or even encouraged by her supervisors,' he said.
A May 29 letter from Anderson to the department related to media coverage of the Waters' case stated that he was 'not aware of any past complaints, nor are there any formal complaints by any fire department employee regarding any harassment.' But one source said that both Waters' direct supervisor and Anderson had been made aware of the inappropriate behavior in the fire house, and did not take steps to stop it.
The City of Petaluma declined to provide emails related to Waters that had been requested by the Argus-Courier, citing exemption from the California Public Records Act because the emails included communication from legal counsel, references to medical conditions and could comprise personnel privacy.
Anderson did not return calls seeking comment on this article.