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Lawsuit claims former employee was demeaned, disrespected at St. Helena Fire Department

Allison Mattioli with SHAPE Committee

Former city employee Allison Mattioli, second from left, accompanies the SHAPE Committee on a tour of the Signorelli Barn in November 2017. Also shown are, from left, Tim Nieman, Mattioli is now suing the city alleging a hostile work environment at the all-male St. Helena Fire Department.

A former employee is suing the city of St. Helena alleging she was subject to “hostile, demeaning and disrespectful conduct” by members of the all-male St. Helena Fire Department.

In a lawsuit filed in February 2018, attorneys for Allison Mattioli claim that she complained about the treatment to her supervisor, Fire Chief John Sorensen, who allegedly told her the firefighters “don’t respect you because you’re a woman in a position of authority.”

Four firefighters identified but not named as defendants in the lawsuit were allegedly disrespectful of Mattioli, with one of them screaming profanity at her during a staff meeting and another “verbally attack[ing]” her in front of a group of people.

The lawsuit claims they resented having to go through her for purchases, “resisted if not refused” her direction to use city email accounts for city business, and “attempted to sabotage” Mattioli’s effort to store confidential Patient Care Reports (PCRs) in a way that complied with patient privacy laws.

Mattioli left St. Helena in February 2018 for a job at the city of Vallejo where she earns $9,300 a year less than she did in St. Helena. The lawsuit seeks back pay, front pay, damages and recovery of legal fees.

The City Council discussed the lawsuit in closed session on Jan. 22 but took no action. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Feb. 13.

Mattioli did not respond to a request for comment through her lawyers. Sorensen, Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment on pending litigation.

“That being said I do think it’s important for our community to remain informed about local government activity and we will endeavor to provide information as soon as we can do so,” Ellsworth said.

Mattioli began working for the city as an hourly administrative assistant in March 2015. The following October she was promoted to the salaried position of management analyst, and was responsible for managing and directing the administration of the St. Helena Fire Department, including budgeting, contracts and ensuring compliance with policies, regulations and best practices.

The lawsuit claims that PCRs had previously been left in areas of the firehouse accessible to all firefighters and members of the public. Following her promotion, Mattioli “established a ‘lock box’ in which firefighters were to deposit PCRs that were generated following an emergency response,” the lawsuit claims.

“Certain firefighters responded to Ms. Mattioli’s assertion of her authority with open hostility and disrespect including, among other things, stuffing the lock box with garbage,” the lawsuit states.

Mattioli complained to Sorensen, who allegedly attributed the firefighters’ behavior to her gender. When she told him the treatment was taking a physical and emotional toll on her and pressed him to take action, the lawsuit claims “Sorensen ultimately explained that he was unable to take any action because if he attempted to enforce any code of conduct the firefighters didn’t like, they could, as a group, vote him out as they had done the previous Fire Chief.”

According to the lawsuit, Mattioli then approached City Manager Jennifer Phillips, who in September 2016 moved Mattioli’s office from the firehouse to City Hall and had her report directly to Phillips. After Phillips left the city in December 2016, she was once again required to report to Sorensen.

The lawsuit claims Sorensen then subjected Mattioli to retaliation by hyper-scrutinizing her work, holding her accountable for duties that were outside her job description, imposing unreasonable and arbitrary deadlines, taking away responsibilities and privileges, and in May 2017 issuing the second of two negative performance evaluations that prevented her from earning a raise.

The lawsuit does not name Sorensen as a co-defendant.

In legal filings, attorneys for the city claim that Mattioli’s supervisors took steps to address her concerns.

“After speaking with (Mattioli), Sorensen had a group discussion with the firefighters and told them that camaraderie needed to improve and that they needed to treat (Mattioli) with respect, as she was a coworker,” the city’s attorneys wrote.

“He also told the firefighters that they needed to stop distracting (Mattioli) at work and stop hanging out by her desk. He recalls telling the firefighters that if they needed anything, they should ask a Captain, or someone higher ranked than a Captain, to ask (Mattioli) for what they needed.”

The city’s attorneys say Sorensen also told firefighters not to put items in the lock box that didn’t belong there and talked to one firefighter who’d had a dispute with Mattioli during a meeting.

After Mattioli had been reassigned to report solely to Sorensen, Interim City Manager Larry Pennell offered to transfer her to Public Works, where she would report to Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies instead – an offer Mattioli accepted.

From July 2017 until she left St. Helena, Mattioli worked as a Public Works management analyst. Among her duties was offering staff support for the St. Helena Asset Planning Engagement (SHAPE) Committee.

In legal filings, attorneys for the city say Mattioli never claimed her concerns were based on gender or any other protected status, and thus the city wasn’t legally obligated to take corrective actions. It did so anyway “because it wanted (Mattioli) to have a productive working environment,” according to one of the court documents.

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