Case Study - Woman in a Male Dominated Profession - "Melissa"
We were fortunate enough one day to receive a call from “Melissa”. Melissa was a firefighter for a large New York city. She had recently gone out on a medical leave after a series of events that would be difficult to believe if you didn't know better.
Melissa – who had been a firefighter for approximately 15 years – was (per the publicly filed documents in the case) subjected to a course of sex discrimination over many years. She claimed that she was passed over for promotion in favor of less qualified males, that she was harassed following a medical leave although males in the same position were not, was subjected to verbal sexual harassment so severe that it caused her to seek medical attention (including extremely disgusting statements by her male colleagues relating to, among other things, masturbation). She had also, per the public documents, received not one but two notes in her locker depicting a head with a bullet going through. Following the second threatening note she was placed on leave by the Fire Chief. She was not permitted to return to work, and ultimately separated from the position.
Melissa had worked her entire adult life to become a firefighter. She had attended the difficult New York State Fire Academy, and had completed the entire program based upon the same standards as her male counterparts – she did not get a “break” because she was a woman. She had dealt with comments from the beginning of the academy, when it became immediately clear to her that some of the men did not want women in their ranks. She fought through it all, kept her head high, and earned a reputation as a good and reliable firefighter. When was put out on leave it devastated her.
We saw Melissa's case and immediately decided to get involved. This was a classic (although more vulgar than most) situation of sex discrimination in a historically “male dominated” field. We have seen this conduct many times, including in fire, police, assembly line, highway, corrections and other fields.
In Melissa's case, not only was she hurt, but she was angry – understandably so. Not only had she lost a good income and retirement benefits (link), but she had worked hard, and was determined to improve the environment both at her former firehouse as well as others across the country. She was willing to face public scrutiny, if need be, to get her story out.
We knew that we needed to aggressively pursue the case, so we immediately filed a Notice of Claim (link) with the city, notifying them that we intended to move forward with a lawsuit as soon as we were able. We also at the same time filed a complaint with the EEOC (link), alleging that Melissa was the victim of sex discrimination, sexual harassment and discrimination based upon a disability (when she was disciplined after taking a medical leave). We later added a claim to the lawsuit alleging that the city also violated the FMLA (link) when it took her protected leave into consideration in refusing to promote her.
When the time came, we filed a Federal Lawsuit on Melissa's behalf, which was picked up by several papers and brought the matter to the public's attention. This type of exposure probably did more to help foster change than anything else.
After filing the lawsuit, we aggressively pursued obtaining documents from the city relating to discipline of other (male) firefighters, complaints, and performance records. They often fought tooth and nail, but we fought too.
In the end the city elected to settle the case, according to the local papers for more than $500,000.
This was not a case about money. This was a case about helping one person right a wrong and helping to foster change in an environment where change had not happened for a long, long time.
Sex discrimination and sexual harassment in male dominated professions occurs much more than many people think, and in our experience the best (and often only) way to fight it and to change the culture is by exposing it for the world to see.
After the case was over Melissa was able to move on with her life, and is doing well. We hope that by taking the action we did we've made it easier for a future women firefighter, whether her or somewhere else.
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Practice area(s): Employment / Labor
Court: Northern District of New York