After allegedly receiving a series of explicit text messages and enduring racially charged comments, a Redwood City firefighter has filed a lawsuit against the city and the fire department for complaints including harassment, retaliation and negligence.
Joseph Echema, a Nigerian immigrant and firefighter with the Redwood City Fire Department for eight years, said his superiors and peers have contributed to a hostile work environment at the department for years, resulting in him filing multiple complaints to the city Human Resources Department.
Of the 10 formal complaints filed in 2018 and 2019, the city found only one to be substantiated, acknowledging he did receive “derogatory, crude or offensive statements, jokes or images related to race,” according to a letter from Human Resource Director Michelle Katsuyoshi sent to Echema on Dec. 9, 2019.
“It makes me lose trust in the system and the city as a whole. I’ve been in a living nightmare basically. To me they don’t take allegations of racism seriously and how it oppresses communities of minorities. They don’t believe me even though they see text messages,” said Echema.
Echema said he regularly endured racially charged comments. He recounted being told by a superior he should get gold teeth to match his gold badge and was asked by a superior why they could not greet him or any Black person by calling them n—.
“I made a complaint and told the captain ‘if you keep making derogatory comments about myself and minorities I’ll make a formal complaint to HR,’” said Echema who noted the encounter made him feel highly uncomfortable.
After initially filing his complaints, Echema said he felt “ostracized” by the department as if he had broken a “silent code” which discourages firefighters from reporting transgressions. He recounted a training session, following the complaint, in which Echema was tasked with completing an exercise alone though normally the exercise would be done by a group of firefighters. He was made to do the task twice after making a mistake during his first attempt.
Following the exercise, Echema said he was demoted by Deputy Fire Chief Greg Da Cuhna without documentation or representation which is against the Firefighter Bill of Rights for punitive action, according to the lawsuit filed in Alameda County Superior Court.
“When they told me I was being demoted because of the training session, they caught me by surprise. It wasn’t a live incident when someone’s life was on the line. It was just a training or practice site. That’s a place to have mistakes,” said Echema.
According to the lawsuit, Echema alleges Da Cuhna also told him during the meeting he was not “a cultural fit at the Redwood City Fire Department,” and would be a better fit in departments in Oakland or San Jose.
Additionally, Echema alleges he was intentionally denied access to educational material used to take a promotional exam which he requested six times until he was finally granted access after the test had already passed. He also he was labeled incompetent in a performance evaluation after filing his complaint though he had received fully competent scores in prior reviews.
Mistreatment by peers
Beyond the treatment of his superiors, Echema said his peers also lobbed racial jokes and pictures at him both in person and over the phone. He said peers often would make derogatory comments about his genitalia by referring to racial stereotypes.
In the lawsuit, Echema alleges co-workers and superiors began making jokes of a photo being shared of a Black man with a large penis followed by comments comparing Black male genitals to that of apes. The lawsuit also alleges Echema was asked how many “white girls you slay with your horse c—” amongst other derogatory questions involving rape.
“They described and compared Black to animals and violent sexual predators. They found this to be acceptable, funny and permissible as they engaged in this behavior openly and without any repercussions,” Echema’s attorney Na’il Benjamin said in the lawsuit.
Echema was eventually placed on a paid leave by the city beginning May 17, 2019, until Jan. 8, 2020, while an investigation was conducted. During this time, Echema said he experienced bouts of depression and anxiety leading him to seek the assistance of mental health professionals.
“Things that were once enjoyable were no longer enjoyable. I was burning with anger and had no self confidence. I felt like a beaten-down wounded animal,” said Echema. “I never had mental health issues before and was fortunate to find mental health professionals who helped stable me and give me some of my confidence back.”
Benjamin praised his client and said he was “diplomatic” in his interactions with superiors, adding he gave them more respect than they deserved. Benjamin also said he did not believe the department is full of bad people and hoped good actors will “act with a moral code” in speaking up with information that corroborates Echema’s story.
“What I know about people is that people will oftentimes violate a moral code to protect their self interest and it’s my job to find ways artfully to prove their self interests are aligned with being truthful,” said Benjamin.
Echema said he sent letters to the City Council requesting they address the issue of systemic racism in the department, especially during these times of civil unrest attributed to national protests against police brutality. He said the response assured him members would look into the matter though no further action has been taken. Of the seven members of the City Council, six did not respond to requests for comment and Vice Mayor Shelly Masur echoed a statement by City Manager Melissa Stevenson Diaz.
“We cannot comment on a case in litigation. The city has been, and will continue to be, committed to fostering an organizational culture that promotes public trust and accountability. We are also committed to learning from one another as we work to strengthen the city’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion within all city departments and in the provision of city services,” said Stevenson Diaz in a statement via email.
Now back at the firehouse, Echema said the treatment of him is similar to that of when he first filed the complaints, noting most in the department have continued to not speak with him. His loved ones have rallied around him as he manages employment at the department while also pursuing legal actions though many have suggested he move to another station, a move he said would fail to drive change.
“My family and loved ones want me to leave for my own safety but I feel as if nothing will change if I do that,” he said. “No one will be held responsible and discrimination and racism will persist if I don’t stand and fight it. It gives me daily anxiety to come to work now but it’s the cross I have to bear.”