Alarming Settlement against Fresno Fire Department

November 13, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
The Fresno Fire Department trains its future firefighters in a 17-week drill. It's a process not very many women get through. Michelle Maher is one who started training, and a jury agreed that she was forced out too soon.                  |   Watch Video Above for Extended Coverage   |

Maher is a mixed martial arts fighter who won her latest battle, but in federal court instead of in the ring. She sued the fire department for gender discrimination and after almost two years, came out with $2.4 million. "It's just overwhelming to think it's over and that it's done," she said. "I can get on with my life."

Jurors told Action News there were "inconsistencies in the way people were evaluated" and that "the city didn't treat [Maher] fairly."

Getting into the Fresno Fire Department has been a tough road for any woman. In California, Fresno is on the low end when it comes to women in the ranks. Redding tops the list at 17.1%. San Francisco has 15%. L.A. is much farther down, at 2%.And then there's Fresno at 2.4%.

"Unfortunately, there are some public agencies in Fresno that haven't gotten the message about gender equality," said Maher's attorney, Dan Siegel. "I hope this sends the message."

Eight of Fresno's 330 firefighters are women and none of them were hired since Chief Randy Bruegman arrived six years ago.

Chief Bruegman left court Friday without talking to Action News, but one of those eight women is Deputy Chief Kerri Donnis. Last year, she told us she'd never experienced gender discrimination.

"It was challenging," she said, "but anything worth its salt is going to be challenging."

Siegel says Donnis is the exception to the rule, but he thinks the culture could change quickly now.

"It's not so much a question of evil," he said. "It's a question of old feelings and old thoughts dying hard."

Siegel also represented three women who sued Fresno State for discrimination, including former basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein. In those three cases, he got settlements or jury awards totaling nearly $30 million.



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