Employee accuses fire marshal harassment

MARTINEZ, Calif. – A Contra Costa County Fire Protection District employee has filed suit in Contra Costa Superior Court, claiming her supervisor was abusive and that the District “neglected to take any action or safety measures to protect (the) plaintiff.”

She is seeking an unspecified amount in both general and specific damages and punitive damages and her attorneys’ fees.

The woman is a 15-year veteran of the fire protection district, and is saying that in 2011, former Fire Marshal Robert Marshall started making “inappropriate sexual comments,” and touched her without her consent.

Marshall left the District late last year to accept a fire marshal position in the San Mateo Consolidated Fire Department. That department covers San Mateo, Belmont and Foster City and Belmont.

At the time the suit contends the harassment started, Marshal was a captain in the Contra Costa Fire Protection District.

He became its fire marshal in 2014. By then, the woman’s suit said, he would block her car so she couldn’t drive away, lock her in his work vehicle and attempt “to scare her…becoming inappropriately angry…,” according to her suit.

Her suit claims that in 2016, Marshall approached her from behind while she was at her work desk, wrapped a chain around her neck and tightened it. While the woman said she felt “shock and fear,” she said Marshal laughed and told her he thought the incident was funny.

The woman said she reported the incidents to Captain George Liang, who in turn reported them to then-Deputy Chief Lewis Broschard, who now is the District’s chief.

But the suit claims Broschard “neglected to take any action or safety measures to protect Plaintiff from similar conduct by Marshall,” and failed to file a workplace violence report against him.

When the woman was promoted to captain in January 2017, Marshall became her immediate supervisor, the suit noted.

She claimed he not only continued harassing her, threatening to prevent her from passing her new probation period as captain while eliminating her previous job.

Had she failed as captain, that would have led to termination under those circumstances, her suit contends.

The suit said she met with Broschard and a human resources division representative, Denise Cannon, about her situation. In March 2017, the District began an investigation of Marshall, the document said.

A month later, Cannon told the woman that her accusations were “substantiated,” but the suit said the woman doesn’t believe Marshall faced sufficient disciplinary action.

The ongoing harassment caused the plaintiff “physical and emotional symptoms,” prompting her to take a medical leave from work, the suit said. She filed a worker compensation claim the suit said was accepted by the District.

Later, the woman met with Broschard and Cannon to explore working at a post in which Marshal wouldn’t be her supervisor. She accepted a captain position under an “alternative work plan” that classified her as having a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, but described it as a “de facto” demotion, because it denied her certain benefits.

When the District’s fire protection and emergency medical services were moved into a single building, the woman’s suit said, her office and Marshall’s were going to be adjacent. When she brought up her concern, her office was moved two doors away.

The suit contends that when she worked with Marshall during a large fire, she felt he was “intentionally using forced interactions to intimidate and control her.”

The woman took a second medical leave of absence, which she said was caused by the District’s lack of response to her “constant state of fear and anxiety about having future interactions with Marshall.”

The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors acts as the governing board of the Fire District. Although each, including District 5 Supervisor Federal Glover, who represents Martinez, was asked to respond to the suit, most were silent on the matter.

Only District 4 Supervisor Karen Mitchoff replied. “I have shared your input with County Counsel but am not able to comment on pending litigation,” she said.

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