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Baltimore County Fire Department Facing $39 Million Training Harassment Suit

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.

Comments - Add Yours

  • Legeros

    I've long asked about metrics regarding hazing and harassment. You know, the science behind the question "how's that working out for you?" Those behaviors (presumably) added value at some point in the history of the fire service and other institutions. (Because we know they wouldn't have been adopted otherwise… right?) Are they still value-adds? Yeah, great question to ask about a lot of things still done because they're still done.

  • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

    Mike

    I would like to see what ever data exists that the hazing and harassment actually adds value to the training experience. I think on some level we intuitively believe it does for fire departments what it does for the military – but from the PhDs I have spoken with the data is not there. And even if it does exist – it still will not be a defense to hazing and harassment wrought upon a particular plaintiff in a particular case.

  • Bruce Moreau

    I wonder how much training the firefighters responsible for conducting the training academy received.  I would expect that they created the same kind of environment that they were exposed to when they experienced their fire academy.  Agencies should be placed on notice the personnel need to be trained and curriculms need to be approved.  It is easy to find fault with the individuals conducting the trainning, however I have an idea that the fire service has most likely set them up for failure.  It will be interesting what the outcome is and what changes are promulgated for the next fire academy.  Police and Fire Academies may become a much more friendlier experience.

  • Mike A.

    Before I begin, let me say that I am in NO WAY affiliated with the Baltimore County FD!

     

    That said, I am appalled that the writer of this blog, leads you to believe that these charges are SUBSTANTIATED!

    I say this after reading the court documentation of the filed complaint.

    Baltimore County RANDOMLY tests EVERY member of it's department, as does every department in the Baltimore Metro area. I KNOW this as I am a retired member of a surrounding jurisdiction. While RANDOMLY generated, it is possible for a person to be selected for testing a few days,weeks or months apart; or possibly not AT ALL!  I was tested three 24 hour shifts in a row (one was not random but a physical) the other two were RANDOM. Prior to that in all of my years of service (28 and a few months) I was NEVER selected and only tested on my annual physical!

    I would want to know WHY it took her almost two years to file her complaint? If it bothered her this much she should have filed it at termination!

    While not knowing ALL of those named in the allegation, I do know of a few (Professionally) and find it extremely hard to believe ANY of the allegations in this document.

    I think for the SAKE of all of the accused, the writer of this article should rethink his thoughts and retract his opinions until this has gone thru the legal system!

    I also believe that if and when these allegations are discredited, he should issue an apology to all named in this allegation.

    The part of the article referring to the video of "Sgt. Hartman" and the comments about what should or should not be said/done are valuable training, however they should not be stated to go hand in hand with this one persons complaint! That is absolutely inappropriate and unprofesional!

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Dear Appalled

      Thow protesteth too much… No one said the allegations were substantiated… how would I possibly know if they are true or not.

      What is true is that the allegations have been made. That is all… nothing more nothing less.

      The post goes on to discuss a more general problem in the fire service that I have witnessed personally – namely that some instructors believe they can treat recruits in the way that Sergeant Hartman treats his soldiers. It is a problem in many fire academies.

      Perhaps as you suggest it is not a problem in Baltimore County. Perhaps the instructors never raise their voice, never say a harsh word and act like perfect gentlemen 100% of the time. If so I am sure they will prevail in their lawsuit.

      My bigger concern is for those well intentioned instructors who do emulate Sergeant Hartman – where ever they may be. IMHO they do not realize there is a serious problem with that kind of behavior.

      I have no idea if that was what happened in Baltimore County – and I can assure you I will be offering no apologies.

      Inappropriate and unprofessional??? Seriously???

  • KyleK

    Having some experience with these Sgt.Hartman-style instructors decades ago in my academy solidified my resolve to NEVER treat people like that if someday given the chance. It is always surprising that these attitudes perpetuate even to this day. A little education on the real consequences of this unnecessary approach may help change things.

  • Mike

    Omg. The fire department is a paramilitary organization. Not everyone can be a navy seal, so even though they can't do the job we should let them get through. Ridiculous. My partner, not matter the sex, age, or race needs to be able to do the job. Period!

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Mike

      No one says let them get through the academy. That is crazy. If someone cannot do the job they should be washed out of the academy… WITHOUT GIVING THEM CAUSE TO SUE US!!!!

      That means we terminate them without the name calling, mean-spirited hazing and harassment.

  • Gunnery Sergeant

    I have been through fire department training and training in the Marines.  My Marine training occurred in 1978 when Marine drill instructors cursed, smoke the living hell out of you on the quarter deck and at times punched you.  I didn't die during the training, I just graduated as a tough Marine prepared for the rigors of the fleet.  The fire department training which occurred at the old academy in Towson was tough but a cake walk in comparison to  Parris Island. The training also prepared me for the rigors of fighting all types of fires.  I realize that society is now in touch with feelings but there is no place for that inside a dwelling with heavy fire showing.  If you cannot handle tough training, how the hell will you handle 1500 degree heat banking down from the ceiling; cry and hope that proven firefighters like those academy instructors are their to save your weak ass.  Oh by the way, how many people does it take to put up a 35' ladder?  I believe three was the stated number which is bull crap.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Gunny

      Thank you for your service.

      The issue is not about tolerating incompetence or giving a free pass to folks who cannot handle the stress of our profession. The issue is about ELIMINATING such individuals from our training academies WITHOUT violating their rights – (and without giving them ammunition to sue us). When we violate their rights – we become the bad guys!!!! And their competence is no longer the issue.

      Just because someone is incompetent – does not give instructors carte blanche to berate, harass, and demean them. Flunk them YES, wash them out YES… but for God sakes do not do what Sergeant Hartman does… because it won't work!!!

      And for those who don't like what I am saying – enough with the hate mail!!! If you think you should be allowed to harass incompetent recruits – write to Congress and ask them to change the EEO laws. In the mean time – I do not want to have to defend instructors from these kinds of accusations. The law is the law, like it or lump it.

  • Jim

    I think Aaron Fields said it best on a Fire Engineering blog talk radio interview when he said something like if the person you are talking to in such a way would punch you in the mouth if he/she were not a recruit and you were not an instructor then maybe you shouldn't talk that way.  

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Jim

      Well said.

  • ukfbbuff

    Simply put, ALL Fire Service Instructors should be following the guidelines as put forth in the:

    IFSTA 7th/8th Editions.

    Contained within its pages are the current rules and guidelines Instructrs should be following just to avoid the appearance of the situation as outlined in the Complaint.

     

     

  • Jon Schneck

    It is better to be judged by 12 than carried by 6. Letting incapable recruts continue on results in Rachal Wilsons.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Jon

      Are you suggesting the only way to deal with incompetent recruits like Rachael Wilson is to harass them?

      I am hearing that very implication in various forms from many many people both on and off line.

      Do you really believe that is the right way to address incompetency? By mean-spirited Sergeant Hartman harassment?

      To me – when you harass someone who is incompetent – you basically give them a "get out of jail free" card. It changes the focus from whether or not they should be in the academy to whether or not the instructors violated the recruit's rights.

      Folks who cannot grasp this distinction should not be serving as fire service instructors. Those running that nation's fire academies need to make sure their instructors "get it".

  • Legeros

    Curt,

    It's almost an absurb assertion:

    A person cannot function as a firefighter and as a member of a fire department, despite their traits and skills, both inate and learned, unless they're also harassed or hazed during their training program

    Really!?

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      100% Agree Mike

      • Legeros

        And if you can figure out what "absurb" means, you get credit credit…

  • Legeros

    That said, I absolutely welcome supporting evidence to the contrary.. Help me understand what I fail to understand.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Same here. If there is data – lets see it. FYI – I have searched for data in the context of defending instructors from these kinds of allegations and it was not to be found.

  • David

     

    Mr. V,

     

    You ask instructors to look at the "facts" of the case…..  How are there any facts at this point?  You also mention allegations, this is the proper terminology at thisoint in this case. There have been no verified facts at this point.

     

    You also remarked that the case was moved to Federal Court. Do you know why this was done?

     

     

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Hi David

      Good questions.

      1. The facts… you are correct, I should have said allegations – alleged facts – because that is all we have at this point. I should have said "Look at the facts as alleged"…

      2. The removal to federal court is a strategic move we see many defense attorneys use to "throw off" the plaintiffs case… It is kind of like calling time out when the field goal unit is getting ready to kick a field goal… but in a much bigger sense.

      The plaintiff's attorney has made a calculated decision to file suit in state court, usually because they think they will be on more favorable turf. The defense attorneys remove the case to federal court (which they can do because there are allegations of federal civils rights violations and discrimination under federal law). In federal court the time tables for discovery are much stricter, the judges are typically more demanding of the attorneys, and for the most part it is usually considered to be a less favorable playing field for the plaintiff… or at worst it is a different playing field than the one the plaintiff's attorney originally wanted to play on.

  • steelydan

    Attitudes like Gunnery Sgt are  why training is falling by the wayside..The ."i got trated like crap ..so i will treat my recruits like crap atttitude has to go!

      The Gunnery 1500000 degree heat bla blah  I am super firefighter  attitude is what gets people killed.

      

  • Greg

    My personal opinion was always that we were treated harder in basic training and in the fire academy because we were supose to be able to perform our job under extreme stress and confusion. Whether it be exposing yourself to lay down suppressing fire so your squad can manuever or you are trying to pull a line and enter a structure while putting your mask on and the homeowner is screaming bloody murder in your ear. The fact is we have to absolutely be able to perform our job under extreme stress and having intructors yelling in my face and ear helped me be good at what I do

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Greg

      That is the challenge – to simulate the stress of battle in training. Instructors have got to find a way to do that without creating an illegally hostile environment.

      No one is suggesting that an instructor cannot yell – and no one is suggesting that we lower standards or training requirements. What the instructor yells has to be managed. Comments directed to a "middle-aged" woman – suggesting the reason she is going so slowly is because she is going through menopause is going to step over sexual and age discrimination lines.

       

  • Legeros

    Curt,

    Years ago on my blog, I conducted a survey of readers on the question of "razzing versus hazing." I presented a list of behaviors and asked folks, okay, is this razzing, is this hazing, is it neither, or are you not sure?

    The results (and resulting discussion) were and remain pretty interesting.

    Thinking about it now, I might've added an additional option of "Part of the job."

    Survey results: http://tinyurl.com/ycpshgq
     

  • http://Google Willy

    As I read the article and the responses I think it is time the fire service realizes that we are living in the 21 century.  Our 200 years of tradition unimpeded by progress is a saying which needs to be retired along with the superman complexes.  Today fire fighters are looking for a career or better a job.  We should treat their training like anyother job training, with professionalism, set goals and objectives, and fair and impartial evaluations.  This is how you determine the acceptable recruits from the ones who cannot do the job and need to find a new career.  As a retired Chief, I spent alot of time monitoring my training staff to make sure we did not have the DI complex because in this world we are not a para military organization in the eyes of the various federal and state agencies, we are an employer.  If you dispute that and want it to be the way it was I suggest you find the Marine Corp. recruiting office and sign up.  By the way you may be disappointed because even they are going through changes you may not like.

  • Skip Kirkwood

    The challenge is to be smart enough to beat them at their own game.  Cussing and insulting is easy – producing the same level of stress and taking the "me" out of the recruit using clean language and without using discriminatory insults – now that takes a little intelligence and a good vocabulary.

    The other reason for federal court – governmental immunities and damage limitations set by the various states don't apply in federal court.  In some states, that means the difference between no $$$ and big $$$ for the plaintiff.  I recently saw a federal suit in South Carolina that was good for several million dollars get quickly settled when it was sent back to state court, where the limit on damages against a unit of government was $300,000.

    The fact is that it takes smarts and hard work to simulate the "stresses of battle" without resorting to unlawful harrassment-type tactics.  It's time, folks!

  • http://www.careersurvivalgroup.com Career Survival Group

    Mr. Varone continues to point out the dangers to careers.

    Take notice, if you are in fire services you are much more likely to get fired than killed in the line of duty. We pay very close attention and immediately respond to physical dangers, why are we so hesitatnt to recognize or accept career dangers?

    A few years ago two captains in Los Angeles were faced with an employee who was negatively impacting morale. In lieu of counseling him within organizational expectations they fed him dog food. 

    I'm interested in the "pro-dog food" argument here..

    We are better than this. 

  • ukfbbuff

    Hi Curt

    Regarding John Schnecks comment.

    While Rachael Wilson may have needed more time in training, it is still in My Opinion that Balto City's Instructors Violated NFPA Stnd 1403 "Live Fire Training in Acquired Structures" in multiple ways.

    Blaming someone who had no previous training as a firefighter, dependent upon her instructors for her safety and survival during her RECRUIT Training, is a Fail on Thier Part, 

    It's during the probationary Period that the final decisions about retention should be made.

    In the LA case, the victim of that case was a Fire Capt., who himself was an instigator in other "Pranks".

    And Yes We Are Better than this.

    Its 2013, IFSTA Training Instructor is a valuable resource to utilize and follow.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Thanks Mike

      You know in rereading Jon's comments he may have been saying that he would rather have to face a jury for firing an incompetent candidate than risk injuring her or someone else… I didn't initially interprete it that way but it could have been what he meant.

  • Dave A

    Skip,

    I am a Federal FF in the Baltimore area and did some digging.

    Apparently this case was moved to Fed Court at the request of Baltimore County (defendant) and not the plaintiff. It has nothing to do with monies but rather the facts of the case. Or so I have been told. I am not a legal eagle, but apparently the county feels the plaintiff has no merit in her claims.