Judge throws out suit over firefighters’ drinking - 28 Fire Department members sought a ‘zero tolerance’ policy
By: Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer,
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle, Wednesday, July 20, 2005
A judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by San Francisco firefighters who sought to force the department to fire anyone found to be drinking or using drugs on the job.

Twenty-eight members of the department, including two deputy chiefs, sued in March asking the court to compel Chief Joanne Hayes-White to implement a “zero tolerance” policy for drug and alcohol use that her predecessor had put in place.

Under that policy, any firefighter found drunk or high on the job was to be dismissed. The plaintiffs said Hayes-White had ignored the policy and opened the door for discriminatory treatment of firefighters when she declared that incidents should be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Attorneys for the city argued that the chief had the right to interpret the department’s policies as she saw fit.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay, in a ruling distributed this week, said the firefighters had failed to substantiate their case and threw out the suit.

“The court found the chief has the right, if not the duty, to decide what’s right in a particular circumstance where substance abuse is alleged,” Deputy City Attorney Larry Hecimovich said Tuesday.

Hayes-White’s office did not respond to calls seeking comment.

John Hanley, president of the Firefighters Union Local 798, said the suit was the product of “disgruntled employees.”

“We knew all along there was no credibility in this litigation,” Hanley said.

Dan Siegel, attorney for the firefighters, said he would appeal the ruling. Siegel argued before the court that Hayes-White was obliged to follow the department’s general orders, which he said were based on federal law to maintain an alcohol- and drug-free workplace.

“The department is not moving aggressively against alcohol and drug use by on-duty firefighters, and the issue has to be addressed,” Siegel said. “I don’t think the chief is going to do what she needs to do, absent a court, the mayor or Board of Supervisors telling her she needs to do it.

“If the court refuses to, maybe the mayor will get disgusted, after someone is injured or killed in an accident or there’s another sexual harassment suit.”

Drug and alcohol use in the department has been an issue for Hayes-White virtually from the day Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed her chief in January 2004.

Last year, a female firefighter, Kristen Odlaug, sued the department for sexual harassment and claimed that drinking in some firehouses was contributing to an abusive atmosphere for women.

In June 2004, a civil grand jury said the department “knows, or should know, it has a problem” related to drugs and alcohol and said the department wasn’t doing anything about it to appease the firefighters union.

The firefighters who sued in March claimed that on-the-job drinking was “frequent, open and notorious.” A month later, the department’s second-in- command, Assistant Chief Fred Sanchez, was forced to retire after allowing an acting captain to return to duty even though another staff member smelled alcohol on his breath.

Tests showed the acting captain, who has also left the department, was drunk.

Hayes-White pledged soon after that to implement random drug testing and after-accident testing within two months. Negotiations continue with the firefighters union with no sign of resolution.

“There are chapters and law books on this — we are just trying to get it right,” Hanley said. “The union and Fire Department are both working to get it right for the citizens of San Francisco.”

He said an agreement was “right around the corner.”

Kevin Smith, head of the Black Firefighters Association, and one of the plaintiffs, said the department had promised to enforce a policy. “She has done nothing,” he said. “This department cannot go unchecked and has to answer to the public.”

©2005 San Francisco Chronicle


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