CHULA VISTA, Calif. - The city of Chula Vista is on the hook for more than $1 million after losing a lawsuit filed by a former fire chief.
Former Deputy Fire Chief James Garcia sued the city after he claimed he found himself the victim of discrimination.
"I was one of those little boys who was 8 years old that decided I wanted to be a firefighter when he grew up," said Garcia.
A calling to protect and serve his community inspired Garcia to grow into a decorated firefighter.
"I loved my job. I loved what I did; it was who I was," he told Team 10.
Garcia rose through the ranks at the Chula Vista Fire Department, winning employee of the year two times and twice being awarded the medal of valor.
"That's the job. That's what you do. That's what all the firefighters do," Garcia said.
However, in 2015, Garcia's 25-year career in Chula Vista came to an abrupt end after he was fired by the city.
"I was completely caught off-guard … [I] had my identity taken away from me; it was wrong," said Garcia.
Bradley Gage, Garcia's lawyer, said, "He was a hero; in other words, a great employee, and they just dumped him. We argued after they learned that he needed neck surgery and that's wrong. That's discriminatory."
Gage said the city fired Garcia just hours after hearing about the surgery. According to the original lawsuit, Garcia related his recent medical problems and stated it was likely related to his 1998 workplace injury.
"Jim is a man that helped to fight discrimination and to enforce the laws. He didn't ever expect to be a victim of discrimination," said Gage.
A jury agreed Garcia was a victim of disability discrimination. They awarded him more than $1 million in damages.
It helps with the financial burden, but it can't heal the emotional one.
"It's extremely painful -- it's tearful … when I hear the fire truck go by, the lights and sirens … when I see it on the news, it hurts. That was me; that's who I was and it got taken away from me and it hurts a lot," said Garcia.
Gage and Garcia are expecting the city of Chula Vista to try and get a new trial.
The city of Chula Vista offered the following statement:
Former City employee Jim Garcia was terminated from his at-will executive level Deputy Fire Chief position on January 14, 2015, after the prior Fire Chief retired, and a new Fire Chief was appointed. Garcia later filed a lawsuit alleging that he was terminated due to his age and/or neck injury, and, that the City did not investigate allegations of discrimination. The City has always contended that Garcia was legitimately, and appropriately, terminated from his at-will Deputy Fire Chief position by a newly appointed Fire Chief in the best interest of public safety and the City and Fire Department. This is because Garcia had been a member of the prior Fire Department management team which had subjected to a Vote of No Confidence supported by over 90% of the Fire Department and Local Firefighter’s Union. Further, Garcia had then been subjected to a National Censure by the International Association of Firefighter’s for having participated in decisions contrary to the safety and welfare of the City’s citizens and Firefighters, urging that Garcia not be hired by any fire department in the entire country. It was time for new and respected leadership in the CV Fire Department in the best interest of the department and citizens. At trial in January 2016, Garcia dropped his claim for failure to investigate discrimination. The jury also did not find that he was terminated because of his age. The jury found in Garcia’s favor for neck injury discrimination. The jury awarded Garcia about $450,000 in lost past and future wages, and about $650,000 in past and future emotional distress damages. The City is analyzing an anticipated appeal to exercise its legal rights to challenge the verdict and the excessive damages awards. In the meantime, the City and Fire Department will continue to provide services to its citizens without interruption or disruption.