Fire captain with prosthetic leg fights for active job
“He didn’t know what happened – he didn’t hear me yell,” Malais recalled, “and he turned the steering wheel, and that pretty much tore off my foot.” No self-pity Lying in his hospital room, his right leg amputated just below the knee, he didn’t have time for self-pity or recriminations. “I said right then, `I’m going to get back,”‘ he said. Today, Malais, 46, of Simi Valley is back running Fire Station 11, but his days appear numbered in that job. The department doesn’t want him back in that capacity. All Gregory Malais ever wanted to be was a firefighter. It was the family profession. His father, Joe, spent a lifetime with the Los Angeles Fire Department. Brother Gary rose to battalion chief. “It’s what our family does,” said Malais, who joined the Fire Department in 1980 and was promoted to captain in 2000 and finally commander of the city’s Fire Station 11 just west of downtown. Then on Oct. 5, 2002, Malais’ world as a firefighter took a gruesome twist. Riding shotgun in one of the department’s biggest fire trucks – an 8,000-pounder – he jumped out to shut a gate the fire engine had just passed through. As he did, the driver inexplicably rolled the truck forward, with a tire catching his right heel. Fire officials don’t want a firefighter with a prosthetic leg leading a platoon, and they want to put Malais behind a desk. They’ve argued in court papers that having a man with a prosthetic leg fighting fires would be dangerous to him, to other firefighters and to the public. He’s filed a lawsuit against the city, which a Los Angeles Superior Court judge threw out. His appeal of that action was denied. Now, he’s taking his case to the state Supreme Court. “What does this say to all the wounded soldiers returning from war who have prosthetic limbs?” said Gwen Freeman, Malais’ lawyer in his lawsuit against the city, in which he claimed he was discriminated against on the basis of his physical disability. Malais maintains he has shown by retaking and passing the department’s rigorous entrance physical test – which he had videotaped – that he is fully recovered and capable of undertaking all the tasks of the job. Back to work After his injury, he returned to work in a light-duty capacity in April 2003, and that October, a year after the accident, he returned to work as a full-time captain II but was assigned to training. Training is classified as a special-duty, as opposed to platoon-duty, assignment – effectively office-type work, with a regular 40-hour workweek, he said. Platoon duty, at the same rank, involves working in a fire station on 24-hour shifts. “I’m capable of doing everything I did before the accident,” he said. But Malais is losing that battle, and ultimately could lose command of his fire platoon. A Los Angeles Superior Court has dismissed Malais’ claim, noting that the department had offered him other positions with comparable pay and promotion opportunities, which he had turned down. Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Grimes ruled that the training assignment was not an adverse employment action, and thus did not violate the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act or public policy. Earlier this year, a three-justice panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal upheld Grimes’ ruling that he was not the subject of discrimination when he was not allowed to continue fighting fires after losing his right leg. “Not every change in the conditions of employment … constitutes an adverse employment action,” Justice Frances Rothschild wrote in the nine-page ruling. Malais has been allowed to remain in command at Fire Station 11 pending his final appeal to the California Supreme Court, which his lawyer said she expects to file this week. “I feel like I was the starting quarterback of a team,” Malais said, “and the next day I’m the water boy.” [email protected] (818) 713-3761160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!