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.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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