A Sacramento Fire Department station was so "sexist, elitist and arrogant" that a female firefighter became so overwhelmed with psychological problems that she couldn't continue to work, a Superior Court jury was told Thursday.
"She could no longer do her job because of depression and anxiety," Wendy York said of Carol Irving, who is suing the Fire Department and the city of Sacramento for up to $3.5 million.
During York's nearly four-hour opening statement, Irving wiped tears from her eyes as the personal milestones of her life were shared with jurors.
A firefighter for about eight years, Irving, 39, is suing for gender discrimination, retaliation and defamation.
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She accuses the Fire Department's top officials of maintaining a hostile work environment. After she complained of more than a half-dozen incidents of harassment, she claims, city officials did nothing.
Senior Deputy City Attorney Matthew D. Ruyak didn't deny there were troubling incidents at Station 6 in Oak Park, where Irving worked.
The incidents included a vial of paint that was placed in Irving's fire protective clothing, an obscene word written on her ax handle and a photo of a doll with duct tape covering its mouth that was found in her locker.
"There are no witnesses to any of those things. No one knows," Ruyak said of who is responsible.
What is known, he said, is that the photo of the doll was downloaded from a Web site.
"Ms. Irving was surfing that Web site," Ruyak told jurors.
In the suit filed in June 2003, Irving named firefighter Eric Guida as a defendant and several other firefighters who were unnamed.
Guida was accused of being the ringleader of a group of firefighters who called themselves Orangemen, after the color used for the station where they worked, the suit alleged.
Guida, who also was sued as an individual, has paid an undisclosed amount to Irving and is no longer a party in the suit now being tried. City officials and York claim the settlement is confidential.
Ruyak told jurors that Irving had exaggerated her claims of suffering from psychiatric problems.
A defense expert, who is expected to testify that Irving suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, didn't make that diagnosis until late last year, yet Irving had been seeing the same doctor since March 2003, Ruyak said.
Fire Department officials contacted and sought consultation from police, the District Attorney's Office, the U.S. attorney's office and various other state agencies during their investigation of the incidents, he said.
Fire and city officials offered Irving transfers to other fire stations and other options, Ruyak said.
"The city gave her opportunity to do as she wanted," he said.
York told jurors that being a firefighter for Irving was a dream ever since she was 6 years old.
Irving, who drove fire trucks and became one of first female "apparatus operators," had received commendations for her work.
But after she began to complain in June 2002 and her complaints were made public, Irving became an outcast, York said.
"This was the single most divisive thing to happen in the history of the Fire Department and Carol Irving was at the pinnacle," York said.
"She couldn't trust her fellow firefighters to watch her back," she said.
Irving became so despondent that she contemplated suicide, York said.
In July 2003, Irving took a medical leave. Her depression and lack of sleep are so severe that she is prescribed as many as five different medications, York said.
Pulling up from underneath the table a large glass pitcher filled with blue and red pills, York showed jurors how many pills Irving had taken over the years. "That's 2,700 pills," she said.
Judge Judy Holzer Hersher, who had earlier admonished York for violating court orders by sharing inadmissible evidence with jurors, chastised York and ordered her to dispense with theatrics.
Some of the inadmissible evidence included reports that crews of firefighters attended porn star balls, cruised midtown bars, drank alcohol on duty and picked up women in fire vehicles.
Ruyak urged jurors to keep an open mind as the evidence, which he described as "voluminous," unfolds before them in the trial.
"It is a cliffhanger. We are going to have wait until the end and it will all come together," the deputy city attorney said.
About the writer:
- The Bee's Ramon Coronado can be reached at (916) 321-1191 or email@example.com.