A former Boston firefighter has reached a $3.2 million settlement with the city after she was harassed and sexually assaulted on the job, then subjected to retaliation for reporting the assault, she and her lawyers said Tuesday.
Nathalie Fontanez said in a video news conference with prominent women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and two Boston lawyers that she was the woman assaulted by former firefighter David Sanchez inside a Jamaica Plain firehouse in January 2018.
Sanchez was convicted in Boston Municipal Court in January 2020 of one count of indecent assault and battery and one count of assault and battery in the incident. He was sentenced to two years of probation. The Globe has not previously identified Fontanez because it does not name victims of sexual violence without their permission.
“I’m breaking my silence because I believe that women firefighters deserve equal treatment in the Boston Fire Department,” Fontanez said during the news conference. “However, at this point that is the dream, but not the reality, for many women firefighters. The department is overdue for change, and the time for change is now.”
A spokesperson for Mayor Martin J. Walsh issued a statement Wednesday condemning the alleged discrimination. “This behavior and these actions will never be tolerated,” the statement said.
In response to Fontanez’s allegations, the city conducted an independent review of the culture for female firefighters in the department. A female former firefighter was to conduct discrimination and harassment trainings, the statement said.
Fire Commissioner John Dempsey, in a separate statement Wednesday, said the fire department doesn’t comment on litigation, but the settlement was in everyone’s best interest.
“While the Boston Fire Department is saddened to lose a valued firefighter and member of the department . . . we wish Ms Fontanez well,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey added that he does not “tolerate harassment, discrimination, or any such behavior by any member of the Boston Fire Department,” and that the department is training every firefighter in team dynamics and avoiding discrimination.
Fontanez’s attorneys filed a lawsuit against the city in November 2019 and finalized the settlement last month, they said.
Allred called Fontanez “a true pioneer in the battle to win equal rights for women as firefighters” and said her case should show “the Boston Fire Department that they must fulfill their legal duty to women firefighters and treat them on an equal basis with men.”
Fontanez worked hard to become a firefighter and felt fortunate for the opportunity, she said. But from the time she joined the Fire Department in 2011, she “felt like a second-class citizen amongst my colleagues,” who hazed her and treated her differently because she is female and Latina, she said.
“I felt that I had to tolerate anything that came my way, because I was lucky to be there,” she said. “I was often reminded by some of my colleagues that I had taken a job from a man who could have been providing for his family, even though I was a single parent providing for mine.”
She hoped to earn the respect of her fellow firefighters and their superiors, but that didn’t happen, she said, and she was “labeled a troublemaker” after she reported an inappropriate incident.
Then, after Sanchez sexually assaulted her, she said, the men in the firehouse sided with him.
“The guys that I once relied on for my life safety now turned against me,” she said. “I felt as though everyone was my enemy.”
After Sanchez was convicted and Fontanez was ready to return to work, she requested a position in the Fire Investigation Unit but was told it was only open to more senior firefighters, Allred said. But then the department gave the job to a white man who joined the department the same day as Fontanez, according to Allred.