Suit Accuses NY Fire Department of Sexual Harassment

A veteran Schenectady firefighter has filed suit against the city claiming she has been subjected to a variety of outrageous comments and conduct creating a sexually hostile workplace.

Jennifer Costa, a firefighter and paramedic in the Schenectady Fire Department since 2001, claims she was repeatedly subjected to lewd behavior; passed over for promotion in favor of less senior, less qualified and less well-trained males; and retaliated against following complaints she made about harassing behavior.

The situation came to a head on February 2, 2014 when “a picture of a face with a bullet in its head” was placed into her boot. Costa interpreted the photo as a death threat. To put the photo and what occurred next into context, here are some of the background allegations contained in the complaint:

  • The Fire Department has no sexual harassment policies, procedures, manuals or training.
  • The Fire Department has no formal policies or procedures for complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment.
  • The Fire Department does not have separate bunk room, shower or restroom facilities for female firefighters
  • DS subjected Plaintiff to explicit sexual comments and harassment for many years including through the end of 2013.
  • It was common knowledge at the Fire Department that Lt. DS was romantically interested in Plaintiff when she started her employment and that, when he was rebuffed, he began a campaign of harassment that lasted for the entirety of Plaintiff’s career.
  • DS made routine comments to Plaintiff to the effect that he masturbated while thinking about her including, but not limited to, comments that he masturbated to the point of “stalactites” hanging from the ceiling and that he needs a “shield” when looking at her Facebook page.
  • DS told Plaintiff, in front of witnesses including the Deputy Chief at Station 1, that Plaintiff’s ex-husband wanted to be with her so he could sexually molest her daughters while she is at work.
  • DS informed Plaintiff that he wanted to perform oral sex on her and subjected her to unwanted touching by pressing himself against her on at least one occasion at Station 3.
  • DS’s comments and inappropriate actions were constant and were made on a routine basis throughout Plaintiff’s employment and whenever they came into contact with each other.
  • DS’s comments were made in front of senior individuals to whom Plaintiff would have complained.
  • DS’s comments were made when he was the senior officer to whom Plaintiff would have complained.
  • DS’s comments and inappropriate acts were so pervasive that they created a hostile work environment and contributed to Plaintiff’s ultimate constructive discharge.
  • Fellow firefighters including senior officers never intervened despite witnessing Lt. DS’s harassment.
  • By virtue of his position in the Fire Department, the actions of Lt. DS are imputed to the City.
  • In addition to the actions of Lt. DS, Plaintiff was subjected to numerous other instances of sexual harassment throughout the course of her career. … In addition to creating a hostile work environment, these instances demonstrate the discriminatory animus of the City and its male firefighters to women in the workplace and Plaintiff in particular.
  • DS’s comments were made when he was the senior officer to whom Plaintiff would have complained.
  • DS’s comments and inappropriate acts were so pervasive that they created a hostile work environment and contributed to Plaintiff’s ultimate constructive discharge.
  • Fellow firefighters including senior officers never intervened despite witnessing Lt. DS’s harassment.
  • By virtue of his position in the Fire Department, the actions of Lt. DS are imputed to the City.
  • During the course of her employment, Plaintiff underwent a hysterectomy. In connection with this hysterectomy, Captain TT, Plaintiff’s superior, commented to Plaintiff that he heard that her uterus fell out. Additionally, Captain TT routinely referred to Plaintiff’s genitalia as “piss fenders”.
  • On or about September 25, 2011, Plaintiff received a death threat in the form of a drawing of a face with a bullet in its head on her locker at Station No. 4. Plaintiff made an unusual incident report and complained to Chief RS, who was a deputy chief at the time. (This incident is hereinafter referred to as “the first death threat.”)
  • Chief RS told Plaintiff “boys will be boys” and “don’t let these guys [referring to male firefighters] get to you”. Nothing came of the investigation and Plaintiff’s difficulties at work continued.

When Costa found the February 2, 2014 photo, she reported it to her officer that day, Lt. DS, who said he “could not do anything for her and that he did not want to be alone in the room with her”. She then reported it to a captain and the police.

That day Costa was involuntarily placed on administrative leave that the complaint refers to as “Chief’s leave”. The following day she was ordered to submit to a psychological fitness for duty exam. She has not been allowed to return to work, something that the complaint characterizes as a “constructive discharge”.

The complaint continues:

  • At the time it placed Plaintiff on Chief’s leave and ordered her to an evaluation, Defendant [Schenectady Fire Department] had merely observed that Plaintiff was understandably upset after she received the death threat in her boot.
  • Plaintiff was placed on Chief’s leave and ordered to attend a fitness for duty evaluation prior to providing Defendant with any correspondence from her own medical providers.
  • By placing Plaintiff on Chief’s leave and ordering her for a fitness for duty evaluation after merely observing that Plaintiff was upset, Defendant treated Plaintiff differently because she is a woman. Defendant does not put men on leave when they become upset at work and does not order men for fitness for duty evaluations for becoming upset on an isolated occasion.
  • Following Plaintiff’s placement on Chief’s leave, Chief RS instructed Plaintiff not to enter any firehouse. Plaintiff’s subsequent attempts to reach Chief RS by telephone in order to discuss her employment were unsuccessful and her telephone messages were not returned.
  • Following her placement on Chief’s Leave and the order to undergo a fitness for duty evaluation, at the evaluation on or about February 7, 2014, Plaintiff provided medical documentation to Ellis Hospital to the effect that she was unable to return to work due to the psychological distress resulting from the second death threat and the years’ of harassment and discrimination she suffered at the hands of the City

The complaint was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of New York on December 26, 2014 and alleges sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation under state and federal law.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Costa v Schenectady

Here is a news report on the suit.

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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