The city of San Francisco has tentatively agreed to a $400,000 settlement of a lawsuit brought by a firefighter who said on-the-job drinking at the Fire Department fueled a sexual harassment campaign against her.
Kristen Odlaug, 41, a six-year employee who is on disability leave, sued the department last year claiming that alcohol was prevalent at one firehouse where she worked in the Richmond District and that high-ranking officers tolerated on-duty drinking, which in turn fostered harassment.
Her suit marked the beginning of months of revelations and turmoil in the department. Several firefighters have since been found to have been drinking on duty, and the department’s second-in-command, Deputy Chief Fred Sanchez, was forced to retire in April in the face of allegations that he had allowed a drunken firefighter to return to duty.
Department officials have tentatively agreed with the firefighters union to start random and after-accident testing in September, although the deal is not final.
Odlaug’s attorney, Dan Siegel, confirmed the $400,000 figure and called the resolution a decent settlement that compensates his client for the harassment she endured.
The city’s attorney’s office confirmed there was a tentative settlement but declined to discuss details or give the amount. “This is something we have to present to our client for approval,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the office.
Besides representing Odlaug, Siegel was the attorney for 28 members of the Fire Department who sued seeking to compel the agency to enforce its zero-tolerance policy for on-duty drinking. The suit was thrown out of court earlier this month.
“We are going to continue to push for change,” Siegel said. “We are not finished with this by any means.
“It’s ultimately up to the mayor, who has come down strongly in favor of stopping alcohol and drug abuse,” Siegel said. “If he does the right thing, then maybe there won’t be repetition of these lawsuits.”
Odlaug’s suit was based on incidents that happened before Mayor Gavin Newsom was elected and Chief Joanne Hayes-White assumed command of the department in January 2004.
Odlaug said her colleagues frequently drank on duty and pressured her to take part. She said she had been sexually harassed within months of joining the department in May 1999 and being assigned to Station 2 in Chinatown. Widespread drinking at her next station, Station 14 in Richmond, seemed to make the harassment worse, Odlaug said.
Several firefighters named in Odlaug’s complaints have left the department or have been disciplined.
Odlaug said one of her Station 14 colleagues, Robert Palu, had subjected her to vulgar language and repeatedly groped her from April 2001 through September 2003. Once, she said, Palu tired to get in bed with her in the firefighters dormitory while wearing only his underwear.
Palu left the department last year on disability. He formally retired in July 2004, the same day the Fire Commission ordered him fired based on eight violations, including disobedience, using improper behavior and language, and breaking the department’s sexual harassment policies.
Acting Capt. Thomas Doudiet was reprimanded and ordered not to act as a captain for a year as part of an agreement to resolve the case before the Fire Commission. Firefighter Clyde Watarai wa suspended for 20 days.
Watarai, according to Odlaug’s lawsuit, once exposed his buttocks and genitals and proceeded to sit on Odlaug’s lap. Doudiet was charged with failing to properly supervise Palu and Watarai.
Station 14 was the scene of a party for a retiring lieutenant June 14, 2003, at which several current and retired firefighters were drinking, Odlaug said.
She initially told department investigators that she had not seen any drinking, but later recanted and said she had been pressured into giving her initial denial. In her claim, she complained that drinking at Station 14 was endemic.
The party incident has not resulted in any discipline. The since-retired Sanchez told the Fire Commission that the department’s investigation found no merit to allegations of a cover up.