Chula Vista Fire Department heads back to court

Firefighter says he was passed over because of his work with the union

Two months after settling a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former deputy fire chief for $2.1 million, attorneys for the city of Chula Vista are preparing for another trial in an unrelated discrimination case filed by another city firefighter.

On August 28, a federal lawsuit filed by firefighter and ex-president of the Chula Vista Firefighter's Association, John Hess, against the city. Hess claims then fire chief Dave Hanneman, with help from then city manager Jim Sandoval, denied giving Hess a promotion due to safety concerns and complaints he had made against the department while serving as the department's union head. Hanneman and Sandoval, according the the complaint, went so far as to remove Hess's name from the promotion list altogether in order to ensure no promotion was handed out.

Hess' lawsuit and pending trial is not the only discrimination lawsuit that has been filed against the department in recent years.

In 2013 then fire captain Rudy Diaz sued the city over what Diaz claimed was improper scoring on a written test he took to be eligible for a promotion to chief. A trial court judge, later affirmed by the state appellate court, however, found that Diaz had failed to make a formal complaint regarding the scores within the appropriate timeframe.

More recently, in July of this year the city settled a case brought by former deputy chief James Garcia for discrimination based on Garcia's age and lack of physical mobility due to a neck and back injury.

The total settlement, including attorney's fees and loss of future wages, amounted to $2.1 million.

In fact, Garcia is scheduled to testify in Hess' case that former chief Hanneman had told him that he would not promote Hess because of his work for the union.

In April of this year, attorneys for the city sought to prohibit Hess' attorney's from making any reference to the Garcia or Diaz' lawsuits.

"...[S]uch evidence impermissibly portrays Defendant City of Chula Vista as an employer who engages in unlawful employment practices. [Hess] seeks to have the jury draw the inference that if other individuals claimed to have suffered retaliation or discrimination or other unlawful employment related actions, [then Hess] must also have suffered an unlawful employment related action committed by [the city]."

Federal Court judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo denied the city's motion, allowing jurors to hear of previous cases within the department and hear Garcia's potentially damning testimony.

The trial will begin on Monday, August 28 at 8:45 AM in Courtroom 4-C.

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