The Baltimore County Fire Department is facing a lawsuit by a former recruit who describes herself as a “middle-aged woman”, and who claims she was illegally hazed, harassed, and forced to withdraw from the fire academy.
Sharon Grant alleges that while at the county’s fire academy from December 2011 to January 2012, she was subjected to a series of humiliating, degrading, and unsafe actions by the academy staff who discriminated against her on account of her gender and age.
Among the allegations:
- Grant was singled out, continually interrupted and berated in front of fellow recruits
- She was harassed based upon her age and gender
- She was called out of class by instructors in front of the other recruits “for the sole purpose of harassing” her
- An instructor repeated sexually inappropriate comments such as "you must be going through menopause, woman" or "you must be having hot flashes, woman”
- Instructors fabricated misconduct by Grant in a effort to build a disciplinary file
- Instructors “habitually” mocked her and on one occasion subjected her to drug testing for no reason
- When she suffered minor injuries the instructors did not ensure prompt medical treatment was provided
- While attempting to raise a 35 foot ladder with another candidate, instructors refused her request for additional instruction (which she claims she missed) and then prevented other recruits from assisting them in the evolution despite the fact two were obviously struggling (the complaint alleges that requiring 2 firefighters to raise a 35 was another example of harassment since a minimum of 3 firefighters should be normally required)
- A recruit grabbed her breast in the presence of an instructor with no consequence to the recruit
- The breast-grabbing incident later became a running joke among instructors and recruits
- Grant was forced to resign, being told she was "never going to graduate this academy anyway."
The suit was originally filed in state court in May, 2013 naming the county, the Baltimore County Fire Department, the BCFD Fire Academy, Fire Chief John Homan, Fire Academy Director PC Murphy, BC Thomas Kimball and eight members of the fire academy staff. The case was removed to federal court (no surprise there) on July 26, 2013 due to the allegations of civil rights violations.
The 27 page complaint includes 13 counts:
- Count 1 – Sexual harassment and discrimination
- Count 2 – Sexual harassment hostile work environment
- Count 3 – Retaliation
- Count 4 – Negligent hiring and retention of the various instructors
- Count 5 – Intentional infliction of severe emotional distress against the instructors
- Count 6 – Respondeat superior – tagging liability for the instructor’s actions to the county
- Count 7 – Civil conspiracy among the instructors to intimidate and harass Grant because of her sex and age.
- Count 8 – Violation of Maryland’s Declaration of Rights
- Count 9 – Violation of equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution
- Count 10 – Conspiracy under 24 USC 1983
- Count 11 – Violation of Grant’s state constitutional rights
- Count 12 – Negligence against Instructor Gary Schweigerath
- Count 13 – Negligence against all the instructors
All tolled, the complaint seeks unspecified compensatory damages and $39 million in punitive damages.
Here is a copy of the complaint. Grant v Baltimore County
I would encourage all fire service instructors to download the complaint and review the allegations. The facts of this case should also be concerning to those responsible for running our nation’s fire academies.
To set the stage, let’s take a look at this video clip from Full Metal Jacket:
It's a clip we all love… but the problem is: how many fire instructors out there – with the absolute best of intentions – tend to emulate Sergeant Hartman in how they treat new recruits?
While it is impossible to determine from reading this complaint whether Ms. Grant had an aptitude shortfall that precipitated the wrath of her instructors – for the sake of the point I am making – it really doesn’t matter.
Even if a recruit is totally incompetent and has absolutely no business being a firefighter, they can still be the victim of illegal hazing and harassment. The two are not mutually exclusive. Just because someone is incompetent, it does not justify abusive behavior such as that provided by Sergeant Hartman. What’s more – incompetence on the part of a candidate is not going to be a defense to a claim of sexual harassment or age discrimination.
That reality exposes the problem with allowing Sergeant Hartmans to have free reign at our fire academies. When intimidating and harassing behavior is directed toward a candidate who is a member of a protected class (gender, race, age, disability, national origin, etc.) the instructors find themselves in almost an indefensible position.
Perhaps I overstated that… let me rephrase: the attorneys trying to defend these instructors in federal court on allegations of illegal discrimination find themselves in an almost indefensible position. The instructors will likely be too busy worrying about whether their houses, cars and bank accounts will still be theirs when the case is finally over.
How exactly does one prove that a female candidate, who by all measures has been harassed, has not been treated any differently than any other recruit? And how exactly do you prove she was harassed because she was incompetent, not because she was a woman?
Even if the instructor is right – that the candidate is incompetent… the instructor can be wrong because of the way the recruit was treated. Sure we can try to prove that the instructors were mean and belligerent to everyone… just like Sergeant Hartman. In real life that is a very very tough case to make in court… and frankly I am not seeing many cases like that coming out favorably for the fire department or the instructors.
Those who are responsible for training firefighters need to pay heed to this case. This is not the first case involving a similar fact pattern and it won’t be the last case. A fire service instructor who dishes out “tough love” like Sergeant Hartman had best understand the risk he/she is running and be prepared to spend some time court.
IMHO fire academies really need to rethink the appropriateness of the Sergeant Hartman instructor model for use in the civilian (non-military) fire service.
A bizarre male-on-male sexual harassment claim made by a paramedic against a captain in the Tucson Fire Department has resulted in a $125,000 settlement.
Paramedic firefighter Cody Jenkins claims that he was physically assaulted and harassed three times by Captain Roger Tamietti on November 9, 2012 while working at Station 7. The three incidents were:
- At about 10:00am when Jenkins returned from a run, Tamietti tackled him knocking him onto a couch where he "forcibly humped and ground" against Jenkins while holding him on a couch.
- Jenkins claims after the first incident, he felt dirty and violated so he took a shower. He claims that while walking back to his room wrapped in a towel, Tamietti swatted him on his buttocks.
- The third incident allegedly occurred when Jenkins was working on the computer in Captain Tamietti's office. Jenkins said Tamietti came up behind him and rubbed his groin against the back of Jenkins’ head. When Jenkins pulled his head away Tamietti allegedly pulled it back against his groin.
Jenkins filed a complaint against Captain Tamietti and an investigation was initiated. Tamietti claimed he was merely engaging in “horseplay”, denied committing any lewd acts, and said he was just trying to make Jenkins feel like one of the guys.
According to the Arizona Daily Star, the investigation concluded that:
- “Homophobic and racial slurs [are] used frequently by TFD employees.
- “Tamietti once jumped out of the shower naked and surprised a firefighter. He called the firefighter a "meat-gazer" for looking at him.
- “Tamietti exposed himself to another firefighter for no apparent reason.
- “Tamietti and two other firefighters did a gyrating dance in their underwear two to three inches from a firefighter who was making a salad dressing for dinner.
- “Butt-slapping was common.”
Tamietti was demoted to firefighter for acting “inappropriately”. He is appealing the demotion claiming the penalty is “excessive” and based on exaggerations by Jenkins. He has also been charged criminally with three misdemeanors alleging assault and harassment.
Last February, Jenkins filed a $500,000 civil claim with the city, alleging he "sustained serious and ongoing psychological damages and injuries" and "sustained a loss of earnings and is psychologically unable to go back to work due to his fear of further retaliation."
The claim also alleges Jenkins was bullied and harassed several years ago at Station 7 while on probation. Jenkins claims he was duct-taped to a pole, intentionally tripped by other firemen, and subjected to verbal abuse.
While normally a civil claim is merely a procedural formality necessary before someone can file a lawsuit against a governmental entity, the Tucson city council took up the matter and agreed to compensate Jenkins $125,000
The Arizona Daily Star quoted Councilman Steve Kozachik as saying "These guys need to act like professionals and not adolescents. … It's not summer camp. That childish behavior is costing taxpayers $125,000."
A battalion chief with the Bradley County Fire Department has received a 2 day suspension for allegedly sexting a female co-worker while on duty.
Battalion Chief Don Tankersley, who was promoted last December, will be prohibited from carrying a personal cellphone for a year and must undergo sexual harassment training. The incident allegedly involved a personal cellphone and not county property.
An HR investigation was initiated after a female employee complained that Chief Tankersley texted her pictures of his genitals. The investigation stopped short of ruling it sexual harassment because it only occurred once, but concluded it was clearly “inappropriate sexual conduct”.
Update: January 31, 2013
The Miami Beach Fire Department’s settlement with a black firefighter recruit who claims he was harassed by white co-workers moved one step closer to resolution last week with the release of an investigation report.
Brian Gentles alleges that he was racially and sexually harassed in 2011 and early 2012. The allegations include being told “go back to Africa,” that a noose “would look good around your neck,” being called “n—–” and “faggot,” having a co-worker’s testicles placed on his face, and having a broomstick shoved up his buttocks.
Gentles claims that when he complained to superiors about the conduct he was terminated. That prompted a 15 page complaint to the EEOC demanding $5.3 million in damages, lost wages and attorney’s fees.
In September, the city offered to settle the case for $100,000 and a job offer for Gentles to work as an inspector. Gentles originally accepted the offer, but later appeared to renege on it, going so far as to threaten to go on a hunger strike in November to get his firefighter job back.
Last week, the city released the report of Steven Schwarzberg who was hired to investigate Gentles’ allegations. Schwarzberg interviewed more than 30 witnesses and wrote in his report that “So many people categorically denied the accusations made against them and others so as to call to question whether there was any factual basis for the charges.” His conclusion was that there was no evidence to substantiate any of Gentles’ allegations.
The Miami Herald quoted Gentles as saying that Schwarzberg was “paid by the city, so he’s really not independent.”
Gentles has until January 1, 2013 to start his job as an investigator. The New Times reported that the Miami Beach City Attorney’s office issued a statement saying “Mr. Gentles has agreed to a settlement with the city and he needs to abide by it.”
Three firefighters and a fire captain have been suspended following an investigation into a rookie hazing incident in Garland Texas.
The Paris, France Fire Brigade is reeling following the revelation that a recruit on the department’s elite gymnastics team had been sodomized and sexually assaulted by teammates. The incident allegedly occurred May 6, 2012 as the team was returning from a gymnastics event. On top of it all, the incident was recorded on a member’s cellphone.
To put the incident into perspective, a bit of background on France’s largest fire department is in order.
The Brigade des Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris, (BSPP) is a military fire department, and the firefighters are active duty military personnel. France has obligatory military service and as an alternative to serving one year in the army or navy, young men and women have the option of applying to serve a 5 year commitment in either Paris (army) or Marseilles (navy) as firefighters. Promising personnel may be offered the opportunity to re-enlist for additional 5 year terms, up to a maximum of 15 years of service. Personnel who are considered to show leadership potential may be admitted into the officers ranks, which is considered to be more of a permanent career.
Given the obligatory service requirement, the Paris Fire Brigade is in the enviable position of being able to recruit the brightest, most physically fit young men and women in the nation. Service in the department is physically rigorous and a premium is placed upon agility. Failure to maintain fitness levels is grounds for dismissal.
To understand just how important agility and fitness is, all fire stations in Paris have a shelf-like platform mounted on a wall at the 8 foot level, known as an etage. All members of the BSPP must be able to hoist themselves up onto the etage as a test of their physical agility and the failure to do so when requested by a superior is grounds for summary dismissal. From scaling ladders (pompier ladders) to rope rescue capability, the department has historically placed a premium value on firefighter agility.
It is not surprising then that while many US fire departments have elite softball or hockey teams, Paris has an equally elite gymnastics squad.
The sexual assault appears to have been part of a ritualized hazing that went too far. The story came to light when the 23 year old victim complained to authorities that he had been pinched and bitten on his buttocks, and sodomized with fingers and a plastic bottle. He claims that one teammate sodomized him as others held him down, and still others looked on. He also alleged that one of the on-lookers was an officer.
The incident occurred on a bus while the team was returning from a gymnastics event in the Alsace region of France. Allegedly it was an initiation of the victim onto the gymnastics team. Two investigations have been launched, one criminal and one internal to the fire department. From news reports, a total of fifteen firefighters were involved and have appeared before a police inquest.
At the present time, four firefighters have been charged with rape, and eight others have been charged with aggravated assault.
The BSPP’s commander, General Gilles Glin, has ordered the gymnastics team to be disbanded. He condemned the incident which he said was contrary to BSPP’s core values of “generosity, devotion to duty, and altruism”.
It is an occurrence that has become all too familiar: a group of young firefighters set out with the intention of hazing a younger member, but in the end the hazers end up arrested.
The latest occurrence was in Vermont involving members of the Hyde Park Town Fire Department and the North Hyde Park/Eden Fire Department. On March 23, 2012, Sydney Mclean-Lipinski, 25, Joshua Kapusta, 24, and Nate Jobe, 21, decided to haze a firefighter cadet by restraining him and shooting him with airsoft guns.
According to Vermont State Police, the trio intended to “restrain the juvenile with handcuffs and ropes, then take the juvenile for a ride in the back of a truck on bumpy roads where they would leave him in a remote part of the Town of Eden.” The plot came undone when the youth escaped. The three firefighters have been charged with unlawful restraint and simple assault. They are due in court on May 30, 2012.
Over the last few years we have seen cases of hazing result in arrests in numerous other states including Connecticut and New York, and as well as other cases where the members involved were disciplined/terminated. For that reason, many department have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing.
A Los Angeles City firefighter has received a half-million dollar settlement following a sexual harassment complaint he filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Firefighter Anthony Almeida complained that he was continually harassed by fellow firefighters after they found out that he had filed a sexual abuse lawsuit against Catholic Church alleging that a priest had sexually assaulted him.
Almeida’s complaint alleged that the harassment began in 2006 after one of his coworkers learned about the lawsuit he had filed against the priest. Thereafter other firefighters began to mock and harass him by making deeply offensive comments of a sexual and religious in nature.
Almeida alleges that he approached LAFD management to complain about the harassment, but they took no remedial measures. Instead, he began to suffer retaliation from co-workers.
The EEOC investigated the complaint and found that Almeida’s complaints were valid. A three-year conciliation agreement was reached, where the fire department will pay Almeida $494,150.00 and the department will also implement anti-harassment training to the entire department and update policies and procedures.
This agreement settled the case administratively, hence avoiding litigation.
Here’s today’s burning question: “I’m a fire captain and I was assigned to work at a station in a different fire department as an observer for a day. While I was there the guys played a series of mean pranks on me. Can I sue them?”
Ask Rialto Fire Department Captain Joshua Gilliam, who filed a claim for $500,000 against the city of Long Beach. On February 10, 2011 he worked at Long Beach Fire Department Station 11 as an observer. He was welcomed with a series of pranks including the venerable:
- Hot ball of tin foil
- Water dump (down the station’s sky-light onto him… here in the Northeast it would be a water drop down the pole hole)
- Fire crackers into the bathroom stall while he was on the throne
According to news reports the claim states that Captain Gilliam suffered “discrimination, harassment, retaliation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, emotional distress, battery.”
Here is more on the story. Speaking of more to the story, is there? Anyone know? There always is….