A federal judge on Monday affirmed a nearly $2.5 million gender discrimination verdict in favor of a woman who was forced out of the Fresno Fire Department’s training academy.
Taken together, the rulings make it more likely that Michelle Maher — a single mother and former professional mixed-martial arts fights — will emerge victorious in her lawsuit, and that the cash-strapped city will have to shell out $2.46 million, plus attorney fees that could top $1 million.
Maher watched the proceedings with a wry smile as anger gave a broad overview of the trial and the evidence — which supported her contention on every point. The judge concluded that the evidence was “very substantial” in Maher’s favor.
After the hearing, Maher said she was pleased with the rulings, but added that “the problem I have is still being blamed after the verdict.”
Her attorney, Dan Siegel, echoed that, saying the verdict against the city “was not Michelle’s fault, it was the Fire Department’s fault. They did a lousy risk-management job.”
It is unclear what Fresno will do next, but its options are limited to a plea to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
James Betts, who represented the city Monday, referred questions to City Attorney Jim Sanchez, who did not return phone calls seeking a comment.
Maher sued the Fire Department in 2008, saying fire training academy supervisors repeatedly asked her personal questions, etc her up top fail certain tasks and unfairly graded an exam. Male candidates didn’t face the same treatment, her suit said.
When Maher started the 20-week course in September 2005, she already had passed the nine-month Fresno City College Fire Academy, was a certified EMT and had obtained 13 certificates in firefighting skills.
During her time at the academy, Maher says, a supervisor repeatedly asked her about her divorce and suggested she was not giving her full effort in the academy because she was a single mother.
About midway through the academy, Maher said she was told that because she had scored below 80% on her most recent quiz, she had to get at least an 80% on a midterm examination or else she would fail the academy.
She said she scored a 78% on the test.
Maher was asked to either resign or be fired from the academy. She resigned.
After the three-week trial last fall, jurors said they believed Maher was not given adequate time to prove herself at the academy. They also felt evaluations were inconsistent, men in the academy were given extra chances to improve in weak areas and nobody from the Fire Department could pinpoint department standards.
Wanger outlined several short-comings in the city’s defense Monday as he went over the trial. Among them: The city failed to hire an economist to rebut evidence presented by Maher’s economist.
The work by Maher’s attorney helped justify her losses and determine a fair amount she should be awarded.
Attorney fees for Siegel remain to be decided. That was also scheduled Monday, but Wanger delayed that until a future date.