Tuesday, December 21, 2010

San Diego firefighter wins $424,000 from city in court

San Diego firefighter wins $424,000 from city in court
He claimed retaliation for exposing wrongdoing in San Diego fire department
By Craig Gustafson
December 20, 2010

San Diego firefighter Paul Vandeveld on the job during the 2007 Witch Creek Fire.

A jury has awarded $424,000 to a San Diego firefighter who said he was suspended and denied a promotion in retaliation for blowing the whistle on wrongdoing in the city’s fire department.

Paul Vandeveld, 44, of El Cajon, has worked in the department since 1990 but his career stalled four years ago after he tried to stop his fellow firefighters from harassing a colleague and aided then-City Attorney Michael Aguirre with his investigation into the city’s pension scandal.

He was suspended without pay for 96 hours for sending an e-mail to higher-ups about the harassment and was denied a promotion several times despite being on the department’s “next in line” list to become a captain.

Background: Paul Vandeveld, a San Diego firefighter, filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city in 2008 for suspending him and denying him a promotion in retaliation for helping a city attorney investigation into pension issues.

What’s changing: A jury awarded $424,000 to Vandeveld in a verdict Thursday, a majority of the sum represents what he would have made had he received a promotion to captain.

Future: The city is considering an appeal. Vandeveld, a 20-year department veteran, has asked to have the suspension removed from his record so he’ll be eligible for promotions in the future.

The 12-member jury’s unanimous decision called for Vandeveld to receive the difference between what he would have made as a captain versus his current salary as a fire engineer. The jury also awarded him $60,000 in punitive damages and the lost pay from his suspension.

Vandeveld burst into tears when the verdict was announced Thursday in Superior Court, said his attorney Steven Shewry.

“He’s been under exceedingly high levels of stress and humiliation since people started getting named captain ahead of him,” Shewry said. “It’s been pretty tough on him. He’s not an emotional guy but you can see that it’s not all that pleasant every day for a guy who always wanted to be a firefighter.”

The circumstances that led to Vandeveld’s lawsuit began in 2006 when Aguirre interviewed the firefighter as part of an investigation into so-called pension spiking, a practice in which employees are promoted to higher ranks or positions shortly before retirement allowing them to collect larger pensions once they leave.

Shortly thereafter, Vandeveld tried to intercede on behalf of a fire captain who many in the department believed had leaked to a reporter that a battalion chief had been arrested for drunken driving. In his lawsuit, Vandeveld said some firefighters physically assaulted the captain and spray-painted “rat” on his fire helmet...

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