A gay firefighter who felt harassed by his peers in Cal Fire is suing the department, alleging that his last supervisors discriminated against him because of his sexuality and because he had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Capt. Dru Snider, 38, says in the complaint he filed last week in San Bernardino Superior Court that the harassment he experienced at a Cal Fire camp in Owens Valley was so severe that he considered suicide.
He filed a discrimination complaint in December 2015, but the department did not open a full investigation into the camp’s leadership until the camp’s chief sent a rude text message that a higher-ranking official read, according to a Cal Fire investigative report.
The report concluded that Owens Valley Division Chief John Paul Melendrez had created a “disruptive” work environment that made some subordinates feel “physically ill.”
“When I asked for help, I was shunned,” Snider said. “When I complained (about) how I was treated in the workplace, I was shunned.”
Snider joined Cal Fire in 2000, and disclosed his sexuality to his peers in 2013.
In his complaint, Snider claimed that higher-ranking firefighters accused him of “flaunting” his sexuality, spread a rumor that he was involved with a minor and told him that his “kind” was not welcome in certain stations.
He suffered a shoulder injury in 2015 that put him on temporary disability. While he was on leave, he accepted a position at the Owens Valley camp that would give him a promotion and a fresh start in the department.
It also would have him working with prison inmates on wildfires instead of responding to highway emergencies. He wanted to get away from highway accidents because he had experienced post-traumatic stress since he witnessed a fellow firefighter’s suicide in 2011, and responding to car crashes seemed to exacerbate his symptoms.
Before he showed up for his first day in Owens Valley, Snider heard from friends that leaders at the camp made derogatory remarks about him and discussed his sexual orientation, with one portraying him in a “flamboyant,” feminine manner in front of other staff members. He and Melendrez spoke that summer, and Snider in the complaint said Melendrez called him "broken."
Snider and Melendrez had a bad start in August 2015, with Melendrez allegedly asking Snider if he was assigned to Owens Valley because there was something "wrong" with him.
In late 2015, Snider felt that his supervisors discriminated against him by berating him in front of colleagues, denying him vacation and exacerbating his PTSD by assigning him to a station that typically responded to a high number of car accidents.
Snider’s doctor put him on a medical leave beginning in January 2016. In September of that year, Cal Fire began the process of terminating him because he had exhausted his sick leave. He has applied for a medical retirement through the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
Snider and his lawyer, Bradley Mancuso of Bohm Law Group, view Snider’s experience as a sign that fire departments can be unwelcoming to gay people and minorities. The case is one of four fire department discrimination lawsuits that Mancuso is pursuing. The other cases involve city departments in Southern California.
“The hazing is everywhere,” Snider said. He believes Cal Fire managers are ill-equipped to deal with mental health issues.
Cal Fire counseled Melendrez about his leadership style in 2016, and it has not received complaints about him since then. Melendrez in the investigative report acknowledged that he sometimes used a harsh leadership style, and said he wanted to foster better relationships with colleagues.
“This employee case has been dealt with and closed and we will support the legal process in any way we can,” Cal Fire spokesman Michael Mohler said.