Utica Fire Prevails in Sex Assault Case

A firefighter in Utica, New York who claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a co-worker while sleeping has lost her civil suit against the accused firefighter and the city’s fire department.

Julieanne Burns claims she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker, Michael Knapp, who allegedly tried to have sex with her while she was sleeping in the fire station in the spring of 2010. Knapp was working on an ambulance in a different station at the time.

Burns did not report the assault initially. She subsequently confronted Knapp about the incident and later recorded a conversation where he did not deny it actually occurred. In September 2010, months after the assault allegedly took place and just days after she recorded the conversation, Burns reported what occurred to the fire chief prompting Knapp’s suspension and an investigation.

A hearing officer concluded that the city failed to sustain its burden of proof against Knapp and dismissed the charges. He has since returned to duty. Burns claims the city’s attorney who oversaw the investigation had a personal animosity toward her and her husband, a city police officer, and was more concerned with minimizing the city’s liability than getting to the truth.

Burns sued in federal court alleging sexual discrimination, assault, and various civil rights violations under state and federal law. The trial court ended the case last week ruling in favor of the fire department and the defendants on all counts.

Among the highlights of the ruling:

Title VII Sex Discrimination

  • If the court finds that the plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to establish that a hostile work environment exists, the court must then determine if there is a basis for imputing liability to the plaintiff’s employer. If … the alleged harasser is the plaintiff’s co-worker, liability attaches to the employer only when the employer has “either provided no reasonable avenue for complaint or knew of the harassment but did nothing about it.” … An employer who knew, “or in the exercise of reasonable care should have known,” of a discriminatorily abusive environment in the workplace has a duty to take reasonable steps to eliminate it.
  • Plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim is based on her assertion that Defendant Knapp sexually assaulted or attempted to rape her. Courts have held that a single incident as severe as this one can constitute a hostile work environment. … Therefore, the Court finds that Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to support a finding that a hostile work environment existed. However, because Defendant Knapp is Plaintiff’s co-worker, liability will not attach to Defendant City of Utica if it can show that it exercised reasonable care to correct the sexually harassing behavior once Plaintiff notified it about the assault.
  • The record shows that, as soon as Plaintiff filed her complaint, Defendant City of Utica suspended Defendant Knapp. … Defendant Knapp did not return to work until [the hearing officer] rendered an opinion regarding the disciplinary charges that Defendant City of Utica had lodged against Defendant Knapp and, upon finding that Defendant City of Utica had not proven those charges, he restored Defendant Knapp to his former position. … Therefore, based on its immediate response to correct the harassing behavior about which Plaintiff complained, the Court finds that Plaintiff cannot hold Defendant City of Utica liable for Defendant Knapp’s conduct. Accordingly, the Court grants Defendant City of Utica’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s Title VII sexual harassment claim.

 

42 USC § 1983 – Equal Protection Against Knapp

  • “To state a claim under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege the violation of a right secured the Constitution and laws of the United States, and must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by persons acting under color of state law.”
  • Plaintiff argues that Defendant Knapp violated her constitutional right to equal protection by sexually assaulting her. The dispositive question, however, is whether Defendant Knapp was acting under color of state law when he sexually assaulted Plaintiff. Admittedly, Defendant Knapp is a municipal employee. However, to determine whether Defendant Knapp was acting under color of state law, the Court must determine whether he committed the sexual assault because he was cloaked with state authority. …
  • Clearly Defendant Knapp’s conduct vis-a-vis Plaintiff was not related to his duties as a firefighter. Rather Defendant Knapp’s sexual assault of Plaintiff constitutes a “personal pursuit” that has nothing to do with his official position as a firefighter. … For these reasons, the Court grants Defendant Knapp’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s § 1983 claim against him because Plaintiff has not alleged any facts that plausibly suggest that Defendant was acting under color of state law when he sexually assaulted her.

 

42 USC § 1983 – Equal Protection Against Utica

  • A plaintiff may hold a municipality liable on a § 1983 claim only “‘if the deprivation of the plaintiff’s rights under federal law is caused by a governmental custom, policy, or usage of the municipality.'”
  • If the municipality has no such custom or policy, the plaintiff may not hold that municipality liable for the actions of its employees under a theory of respondeat superior. … Therefore, “isolated acts of municipal employees are typically not sufficient to establish municipal liability.” … Plaintiff has not alleged any facts that plausibly suggest that Defendant City of Utica had a formal policy that condoned sexual assault and/or harassment of its employees.
  • Plaintiff does not allege any facts that plausibly suggest that Defendant Knapp’s sexual assault of Plaintiff was anything other than an isolated incident, rather than one of many such incidents that would suggest that such conduct was persistent or condoned. Finally, Plaintiff does not allege any facts that plausibly suggest that Defendant City of Utica failed to train or supervise its employees regarding the issue of sexual harassment.

Assault and Battery

  • Pursuant to § 215(3) of New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, a plaintiff must commence an action to recover damages for assault and battery within one year of the incident.
  • The incident in question occurred in the spring of 2010; however, Plaintiff did not commence this action until November 27, 2012. Plaintiff has not alleged that Defendant Knapp did anything to prevent her from filing this action within the one-year statute of limitations period. Therefore, the Court grants Defendant Knapp’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s assault and battery claim against him as time-barred.

Here is a copy of the ruling. It was handed down February 20, 2014.  Burns_v._Utica_-_Decision_by_Judge_Scullin_Dismissing_Action_2-20-2014

Prior coverage

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.
x

Check Also

Two Palm Beach County Captains Claim Their Discipline Violates First Amendment

Two captains with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue have filed suit claiming the department violated their First Amendment rights by disciplining them for their social media posts. Captain AJ O’Laughlin and Captain Crystal Little filed suit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court last week.

Houston Prop B Ruled Unconstitutional

In a stunning reversal that has plusses and minuses for both sides, Harris County District Court Judge Tanya Garrison has ruled that Proposition B that mandates Houston firefighters receive parity with Houston police officers, is unconstitutional. The decision was handed down today.