By Ethan Baron
Bay Area News Group
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Casilia Loessberg dreamed of becoming a firefighter. After seven years in the U.S. Marines, she turned her dream to 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 this week.
Loessberg joined the San Jose Fire Department in 2015, according to the suit filed Wednesday against the City of San Jose.
“What happened next was horrific and unlawful,” the suit 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.”
San Jose 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.
When Loessberg started in the San Jose Fire Department, women made up less than 4% of career U.S. firefighters, according to the federal government’s U.S. Fire Administration, which reported that female firefighters repeatedly describe discrimination and harassment as key barriers to having more women in firefighting. A 2020 Santa Clara County civil grand jury report said only 4% of firefighters in the county were women because of gender bias, insufficient female recruitment and a “lack of inclusivity,” and that San Jose’s department had only 2% women.
The City of San Jose has paid out more than $1 million in a judgment and settlements to female firefighters in 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 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. The man rubbed his crotch against her and whispered in her ear, she alleges. A “shocked” male co-worker who witnessed the purported incident said nothing, Loessberg claims. 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 suit.
The supervisor also made other “unwelcome advances” to her, and she learned he had “allegedly assaulted a female paramedic who worked for a Santa Clara County ambulance company,” the suit 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 alleges.
In 2017, Loessberg became the first woman firefighter at San Jose’s Station 3, considered to be a “rough and tough” location nicknamed “the cowboy station,” according to the suit. 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. One photo showed a frontal view of a woman standing with one leg against a wall, her genitals and breasts exposed, Loessberg alleges. 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 chief 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 suit alleges. When the man asked Loessberg if she was Jewish she told him she believed she was German, and 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 her 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 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.