ACLU, ACLU-VA charge Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department with retaliation

aclu virginiaThe American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Virginia today filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charges against the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department and Fairfax County for retaliation on behalf of Battalion Chiefs Kathleen Stanley and Cheri Zosh. The ACLU’s EEOC charges argue FRD violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment and retaliation against those who oppose such conduct.

“The FRD is charged with serving the public, but instead it’s punishing two of its very best,” said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “At the highest levels, the FRD has sent the message that it doesn’t want to hear about the well-being of its female members. If the highest-achieving women in the FRD are hung out to dry when they raise concerns, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the women in the department?”

According to the charges, the FRD retaliated against Stanley and Zosh – the highest-ranking active female members of the department, with more than 50 years of public service between them – for speaking out against the FRD’s systemic discrimination against female firefighters, including pervasive sexual harassment. Stanley alleges that she faced ongoing retaliation during her tenure as Women’s Program Officer, which escalated after she resigned the post in protest on January 29. Zosh claims a pattern of abuse stemming from her advocacy on behalf of firefighter Magaly Hernandez, whose sexual harassment claims against the FRD were settled in April just prior to trial.

Stanley was appointed FRD’s Women’s Program Officer in 2016 after the suicide of FRD firefighter Nicole Mittendorff triggered scrutiny of the department’s tolerance of sexual harassment and bullying. As Women’s Program Officer, Stanley spoke out about ongoing harassment and other forms of discrimination in the department, related to promotions, inadequate firehouse conditions for women and unequal access to training.  Her resignation letter was leaked to the press, resulting in scathing Facebook abuse from her union and culminating in Fairfax County leadership presenting Stanley with three possible demotions and an order to “choose” one within a week. The County additionally conducted a cursory internal investigation of the allegations in Stanley’s letter.

“I’ve devoted my career to the FRD, and want to leave it better for women than I found it more than a quarter century ago,” said Stanley. “The department appointed me to a position where I was supposed to be a voice for the female members. Now that they’ve tried to silence me, I feel an obligation to keep speaking out and demand that these behaviors stop.”

Zosh filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging the FRD retaliated against her for reporting a captain in Zosh’s command, Jon Bruley, after he harassed and stalked firefighter Hernandez – and then failed to act when Bruley began harassing and stalking Zosh as well. Her lawsuit was dismissed, as was Hernandez’s, but the latter decision was appealed and recently reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found Bruley’s harassment sufficiently “hostile and abusive” – and the FRD’s response to it sufficiently “inadequate” – to warrant a trial. The case was settled soon thereafter.

Since bringing her case, Zosh has been denied multiple positions, including a promotion to Deputy Chief and has been repeatedly threatened with unfounded discipline and denied necessary staffing in her units, among other retaliation. She also has witnessed her wife – a more junior firefighter – face similar blowback.

“I am proud of my nearly 25 years of service with the FRD, and the culture has to change,” said Zosh. “At this historic moment of women speaking up around the country, a real turning point is possible. We have the opportunity to make things better for the younger generation of firefighters.”

The FRD is currently searching for a new Fire Chief; Richard Bowers announced his retirement following the release of Stanley’s letter and left the position late last month. Many of the same leaders who presided over the department’s tenure of scandals identified by Stanley and Zosh, and that resulted in six sex discrimination lawsuits against FRD since 2005, are still in positions of power.

The FRD nominally is hosting the iWomen Conference, an annual gathering of female fire and emergency management professionals from around the world, taking place from May 24 -26.  Stanley is its chief organizer, but among her allegations is that, since she resigned as Women’s Program Officer, FRD leadership and her union have undermined her efforts to organize the event, such as by denying her a working computer, refusing to provide necessary staff and financial support, and failing to publicize the conference or facilitate attendance by FRD members, in contrast to their support of similar professional events.

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