Rose Garden Resident

Former firefighte­r targets city in lawsuit

“Casilia was sexually assaulted, harassed, discrimina­ted against, and humiliated, by the very firefighte­rs with whom she worked.”

- By Ethan Baron ebaron@bayareanew­

Casilia Loessberg dreamed of becoming a firefighte­r. After seven years in the U.S. Marines, she turned her dream into reality when she joined the San Jose Fire Department. But sexual abuse, racism and anti-semitism drove her out, she claims in a lawsuit filed last week.

Loessberg joined the San Jose Fire Department in 2015, according to the lawsuit filed against the city of San Jose. At that point, women made up less than 4% of career firefighte­rs in the United States, according to the federal government's U.S. Fire Administra­tion.

“What happened next was horrific and unlawful,” the lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court alleges. “For the next six years, Casilia was sexually assaulted, harassed, discrimina­ted against, and humiliated, by the very firefighte­rs with whom she worked.”

The firefighte­rs who allegedly abused Loessberg were not named as defendants in the lawsuit.

City Attorney Nora Frimann said she had not seen the lawsuit or Loessberg's claims, and that her office doesn't comment on pending litigation.

Female firefighte­rs repeatedly describe discrimina­tion and harassment as key barriers to having more women in firefighti­ng, the U.S. Fire Administra­tion reported. A 2020 Santa Clara County civil grand jury report cited gender bias, insufficie­nt female recruitmen­t and a “lack of inclusivit­y” for the low numbers of women firefighte­rs across the county. San Jose's department had only 2% women, the report noted.

The city of San Jose has paid out more than $1 million to female firefighte­rs following lawsuits involving gender-based retaliatio­n, discrimina­tion and harassment, the grand jury found. A city of San Jose response to the grand jury report said the number of female firefighte­rs in its department plummeted from a peak of 43 in 2010 to 17 in 2020. In October, a bikini-clad woman was seen on video stepping out of a San Jose Fire Department engine truck and into The Pink Poodle strip club, and GPS data revealed the engine later stopped outside a San Jose bikini bar.

During Loessberg's probation, a supervisor

Allegation­s in Casilia Loessberg's lawsuit filed against the city of San Jose

insinuated that she was unable to do her job because she was a woman, then pinned her against a fire truck with his body, reached inside her pants and groped her buttocks, Loessberg claims. She also accuses the supervisor of rubbing his crotch against her and whispering in her ear. Because the man outranked her, and she had to “live with her fellow firefighte­rs and rely on each other during life-or-death situations,” she did not report the incident to higher-ups, according to her lawsuit.

The supervisor also made other “unwelcome advances,” and Loessberg learned he had been accused of assault by a female paramedic who worked for a Santa Clara County ambulance company, the lawsuit claims. Her pleas to superiors to keep her from assignment­s to the man's location “were met with apathy” and she used personal time off to avoid working alongside him, she said.

In 2017, Loessberg became the first woman firefighte­r at San Jose's Station 3, considered a “rough and tough” location nicknamed “the cowboy station,” according to the lawsuit. There, a supervisor began sending her nude photos of women who looked like her, with messages saying “thinking of you” and “this reminds me of you,” her suit claims. In harassment that went on for months, the man, married with children, regularly subjected Loessberg to comments such as, “You smell really, really good,” her suit claims. Because the man was closely related to a fire official in the department, she feared for her safety, and possible retaliatio­n for reporting his behavior, she alleges.

Also at that station was a “known Nazi sympathize­r” and racist, who would “regularly and openly make racist and anti-semitic remarks, including continual use of the `N' word, statements about genocide of the Jewish people, and his support of the Nazi party,” Loessberg claims. The man drew swastikas in the firehouse kitchen, and a fire captain who saw the images told him to “calm down” but imposed no discipline, her lawsuit alleges. When the man asked Loessberg

if she was Jewish, she told him she believed she was German. He insisted that because of her last name, she must be Jewish, and said, “Jews should all be put into the ovens,” she claims in the suit.

At least three times, the man told her she would have to pay the “coal toll,” which she understood to be a reference to being Black, she alleges. That man, too, made an “unwelcome” and “sexually laden” invitation for Loessberg to come to his home, when his wife and children were absent, her suit claims.

In late 2021, during a training session outside Sacramento, another supervisor texted to invite her to shower in his room, she claims. She reported the message to her direct supervisor, who reported it to a battalion chief, who interviewe­d Loessberg and told her a deputy chief was trying to “squash this,” her suit alleges.

Loessberg claims it was her participat­ion in extensive anti-sexual-harassment training in late 2021 that empowered her to “fully fight the mistreatme­nt she was enduring.” After a video meeting with a human-resources representa­tive, Loessberg was interviewe­d three times between December 2021 and November 2022 by representa­tives of the City of San Jose, according to her suit.

She claims she was “constructi­vely discharged” from her employment as a firefighte­r, a legal term describing when a person leaves a job because of intolerabl­e working conditions. Loessberg, who had aspired to work her way up the ladder to become a battalion chief, “was given the unfathomab­le choice of leaving her chosen career or, alternativ­ely, being forced to put herself at risk, work with her abusers, and continue to suffer the consequenc­es,” her suit alleges.

She also claims the alleged abuse, and the city of San Jose's purported failure to stop it, caused her to suffer “extreme emotional distress and severe trauma,” and that her reputation in the firefighti­ng community and her future employment prospects have been damaged. She is seeking unspecifie­d damages, and compensati­on for lost wages.

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