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Retired Tucson firefighter doesn't give up in gender discrimination lawsuit against the city

Despite the harassment Michelle Maliniak says she experienced in the Tucson Fire Department, it's obvious that the retired firefighter is still proud of her 22 years of service.

Just past the front door of her eastside home, a worn, yellow firefighter's coat and helmet hang prominently on her living room wall next to a picture of one of the engines she drove for seven years while maintaining a blemish-free safety record.

In 2006, Maliniak was granted permission to file a gender discrimination lawsuit, which eventually went before the late Judge John Roll in U.S. District Court. Roll determined the case should be heard before a jury, but not long before the trial was schedule to start, Roll was shot and killed when he stopped by to say hello to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a Congress on Your Corner event on Jan. 8, 2011.

The case, like many others on the federal docket in Tucson, went to Judge A. Wallace Tashima. According to Maliniak, her case finally went before Tashima on Nov. 5, 2012, and on Nov. 13, the jury awarded her $35,000 in lost pay and attorney's fees. But on Nov. 21 Tashima dismissed the jury's decision and ruled for the city of Tucson.

Maliniak is now appealing to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and she's hoping that a website she's created draws attention to her case and other discrimination cases, particularly those that involve gender discrimination faced by women in uniform.

The website, Support Women in Uniform, is at http://supportwomeninuniform.vpweb.com. There's a page devoted to Maliniak's case, including a detailed account of the discrimination Maliniak said she experienced, and a way to help pay her legal costs. She says her attorney has donated more than $158,000 worth of time to her case. Her current legal costs top $60,000 and the appeal may cost another $20,000. Maliniak says she hopes to eventually be able to give financial support to other discrimination cases throughout the country.

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin talked to the Tucson Weekly about Maliniak's case and says Tashima did the right thing.

"The jury came back with a modest award and the judge dismissed it based on insufficient evidence," Rankin says.

Rankin says that if Maliniak should win her appeal, the court could reverse Tashima's order and "remand for a new trial" or reinstate the jury's verdict.

Does the jury's verdict and Maliniak's story mean the city of Tucson has a problem with gender discrimination? Rankin says no. "Generally the city of Tucson as an organization does a very good job of making sure its employees are treated fairly—gender, race or other protective classes. That's very important."

Maliniak feels differently, of course. The Weekly first talked to Maliniak after she took an unpaid leave of absence in December 2005. Back then, her allegations included male firefighters continuing to use the women's restrooms, sometimes failing to flush the toilets. After a supervisor put a sign on a restroom door stating "No Men," another firefighter added the words "for me," she said. Another allegation was that someone put rocks in the hubcaps of her firetruck to sabotage her safety on the job.

Maliniak started her career in 1989 in Sierra Vista, where she was the first female firefighter hired by her hometown. In 1990 she became one of 12 women hired by the Tucson Fire Department to settle a class-action lawsuit claiming gender discrimination.

Although Maliniak experienced some harassment in the Sierra Vista department, she says the chief there handled issues before they got out of control. But as a firefighter in Tucson, Maliniak alleges, she was physically assaulted by a captain who held her inside a burning trailer without her air pack. Despite suffered respiratory and eye injuries, no disciplinary action was taken and the captain was eventually promoted to assistant chief, she says.

On her website, she outlines other abuses that took place, including being called a "stupid woman," a "bitch" and a "troublemaker." Emails about her said she should be "hunted with pitbulls" and called her a "dreaded beast." Her safety gear and tags were tampered with or stolen, and trash was placed in her boots.

Maliniak says that when she complained, she faced charges of insubordination. She also recalls being promoted to paramedic and engineer but not receiving the same pay as men she worked with who had the same certifications.

Prior to filing a lawsuit, Maliniak says she followed proper protocol, first going to the city of Tucson's Equal Employment Opportunity office, which dismissed all of her complaints. She says the International Association of Firefighters union and the local IAFF 479 Tucson chapter, of which she was a member for 20 years, did nothing for her although it did collect $5,000 for a battalion chief who was disciplined for sending her threatening emails.

Maliniak also went to the Tucson Women's Commission and Tucson GLBT Commission, but interventions on her behalf were ignored. When the Weekly talked to her in December 2005, Maliniak had filed a federal EEO complaint and left the job on unpaid medical leave but returned the next year only to experience further harassment.

Maliniak says she finally opted to retire in June 2011 after complaining to the city that she felt unsafe at her station and on calls with her captain after an incident during a call to the federal prison in Tucson.

Since leaving the department, Maliniak, who went back to school to study counseling, has started a therapy practice and has talked to other female firefighters who have experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that she thinks is often linked to on-the-job harassment.

"It's not so much from work, but when no one will help you and you're helpless and in danger. Harassment, discrimination, is a perfect setup for that," she says.

Talking to other women, and sometimes to men, about those experiences has helped her, she says. "That's part of the point of what I want to do right now. I want to let other women know you are not alone. It's wrong and there's help for you."

In addition to her appeal, Maliniak says she has a petition at Change.org asking Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild to stop sexual harassment within city departments.

"Sure, part of it is that I wouldn't just keep my mouth shut and go along with whatever it is they wanted to do," Maliniak says, pausing by the front door to look at the picture of the engine she once drove.

"My record didn't matter. They still questioned my abilities."

More by Mari Herreras

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