A veteran Los Angeles County firefighter is suing his employer, alleging he was wrongfully denied a promotion to engineer in 2020 because he is Cuban, Catholic and made the sign of the cross in front of his evaluators.

Robert Villa’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit alleges discrimination based on ethnicity and religion, as well as failure to prevent discrimination. He seeks unspecified damages in the suit brought Thursday.

A representative for Los Angeles County could not be immediately reached for comment.

Villa took the engineer examination in 2020 and passed the more difficult portions of the test, including the hydraulic, draft and brake portions of the test, according to his court papers.

“Prior to commencing his test, Villa, a devout, practicing Roman Catholic, did the sign of the cross, which was viewed by his raters,” the lawsuit says.

One of the evaluators was a white captain and the second was an engineer who Villa does not believe to be Cuban, according to the suit.

He alleges that during the test, the raters discriminated against him by subtracting points for not pushing a button on the auxiliary braking device to operate the transmission retarder while only taking away two points from two white, non-Cuban applicants who made the same mistake. The only apparent difference between the two white, non-Cuban firefighters and Villa was that Villa was Cuban and Catholic, the suit says.

Villa also was penalized points for going 44 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone, even though the evaluators’ notes showed he was not impeding traffic or going too slow, according to his complaint.

The evaluators also improperly deducted points on 11 separate occasions on the portion of the exam dealing with the vertical clearance of bridges, the suit alleges.

“The cumulative effect of these inappropriate deductions was that the raters failed Villa on the engineer examination. In doing so, the raters favored Caucasians and other non-Cuban, non-Catholic candidates and held it against Villa for doing the sign of the cross before starting the test,” the suit alleges.

Villa has experienced financial damage as well as emotional distress as a result, according to his court papers.

“He has suffered for this huge setback in his career, a career choice he made so he could serve the public and help the members of the community he serves as a member of the (Los Angeles County Fire Department),” the suit says.

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