US DOJ Sues Houston Over Station 54 Sexual Harassment Complaints

The US Department of Justice filed suit today against the City of Houston on behalf of two female firefighters who claim they were sexually harassed while assigned to Station 54.

Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes claim that male firefighters at Station 54 harassed them in 2009, prompting them to file complaints. Thereafter, the harassment dramatically worsened resulting in them being placed on leave.

Keyes ended up being reassigned, but Draycott sought to be return to Station 54 resulting in a highly publicized protest of sorts where male firefighters disparaged her in front of ranking officers. Thereafter, Draycott sought and was granted a disability pension.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sought to resolve the women’s claims of harassment and retaliation with the city, but conciliation efforts failed. The EEOC then forwarded the case on to the US Department of Justice for litigation. The three-count complaint filed today in US District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleges hostile work environment, retaliation and constructive termination.

From the complaint:

  • Prior to Draycott’s and Keyes’ assignments to Station 54 in 2008 and 2009, respectively, several female firefighters reported to the City that male firefighters were misusing the women’s dormitory and bathroom in an attempt to drive the women away from the Station.
  • Notwithstanding the City’s awareness of the long-standing complaints about male firefighters’ misuse of the women’s dormitory and bathroom, when Draycott and Keyes transferred to Station 54, they encountered the same problems that other women had previously reported to management.
  • In the bathroom, Draycott regularly found the toilet seat up, urine on the outside of the toilet and on the floor, wet spots in the corner on the carpet that appeared to be urine, and yellow areas in the sink that she believed to be urine.
  • In the dormitory, Draycott also found tobacco spit in her desk drawers, spilled drinks, dirty dishes, used Q-tips, and nail clippings on her bed and on the floor. On several occasions, her mattress was removed and replaced with an older, worn mattress.
  • Keyes experienced similar problems at Station 54, including regularly finding urine on the floor and toilet seat in the bathroom. In the dormitory, she found tobacco spit in her desk drawers, and spit cups in the women’s dormitory. Her items were also moved around in her locker.
  • Male firefighters would not interact with Draycott or Keyes, often for their entire shifts. Though firefighters must live and work together in close quarters for 24-hour shifts, Draycott and Keyes were left to eat and pass time alone.
  • In early 2009, Draycott reported to her Captain that a firecracker exploded when she opened the door to the stall in the women’s bathroom. He laughed at her complaint.
  • Draycott made at least three verbal complaints regarding the conditions of the bathroom and dormitory to Captain Hencshel prior to April 10, 2009.
  • Beginning April 10, 2009, Hencshel began recording Draycott’s complaints in the station Log Book. On April 10, 2009, Hencshel recorded that he met with Draycott and Keyes to discuss the television being removed from the women’s dormitory and advised them to tell him if they encountered further problems in their bathroom or dormitory.
  • On May 12, 2009, Captain Hencshel recorded that he was asked to come witness urine on the women’s toilet seat.
  • The following day, on May 13, 2009, Hencshel recorded that during a Roll Call, he questioned whether any firefighter had gone into the women’s dormitory and reminded them that those areas were off limits.
  • On May 18, 2009, Hencshel recorded that urine on the toilet was again reported.
  • On June 19, 2009, Hencshel again recorded that he investigated urine in the women’s bathroom.
  • The same day, Draycott reported to Hencshel that she had tried to take a shower and had been scalded by hot water. A later investigation revealed the cold water valve in the ceiling had been manually turned off, although there were no records of any shower maintenance work around that time.
  • On June 21, 2009, Hencshel emailed the other Captains at Station 54, informing them that he had received numerous complaints from Draycott about urine on the toilet seat and rim. Hencshel asked them to advise their staff that the women’s dormitory and bathroom were off limits.
  • Following this notification, the announcement speakers in the female dormitory were manually turned off, causing Draycott to nearly miss a run when she was called to report and did not appear. The cables to the television in the women’s dormitory also went missing.
  • District Chief McAteer was apprised of at least some of the problems Draycott and Keyes were encountering, but he merely instructed his Captains to manage the situation, without any further guidance.
  • On June 29, 2009, Draycott, accompanied by Keyes, filed a complaint of harassment with Staff Services.
  • Eight days after she filed her complaint, on July 7, 2009, Draycott arrived to work and discovered sex-based and racial slurs written throughout the women’s dormitory in black permanent marker. The slurs were directed at Draycott, who is white; Draycott’s children; and Keyes, who is African-American.
  • Keyes arrived at the station shortly thereafter and also witnessed the vandalism and threats. Both Draycott and Keyes were extremely emotionally distraught by what they saw.
  • The following slurs were written in the women’s dormitory:
    • “Niggar lover” and “Die bitch” were written on the wall above Draycott’s desk, which had a picture of her two children;
    • On the wall to the left of Draycott’s locker, “die bitch” was written;
    • On the wall above Keyes’ desk and on her pull down bed, “die niggar” was written;
    • Two of Keyes’ personal pictures were removed from her locker, written on, and left on the floor; and
    • Inside Draycott’s locker, someone wrote “dead” on the picture of her deceased daughter, who had been killed in an automobile accident, and “die” on Draycott’s picture.
  • As part of its investigation, the HPD ordered 18 firefighters who were present during the timeframe in which the slurs were written to sit for a polygraph. One firefighter, Donald Kern, received a conclusion of “deception indicated.”
  • Several other male firefighters… received a conclusion of “no opinion” or “inconclusive results” and were polygraphed a second time.
  • On July 16, 2009, Draycott was polygraphed by a private examiner, who determined she passed the examination without any deception. On July 21, 2009, she was polygraphed by a different private examiner, who similarly concluded she was not being deceptive.
  • Draycott provided these results to HPD, but they were rejected and HPD sent these results for second opinions to the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment.
  • On July 20, 2009, Draycott was polygraphed by HPD. HPD reported “No Opinion (Suspected Countermeasures).”
  • HPD polygraphed Keyes on July 20, 2009, and concluded she was not being deceptive.
  • HPD also collected handwriting samples from a number of firefighters, including Draycott and Keyes. Based on its initial review of Draycott’s handwriting sample, HPD claimed Draycott had written the slurs. However, the Texas Department of Public Safety and FBI reviewed the same handwriting samples and informed the City they were unable to identify any suspect.
  • During the investigation, Draycott and Keyes were placed on leave.
  • Keyes eventually transferred to another station.
  • In the fall of 2009, Draycott indicated her desire to return to Station 54.
  • On January 13, 2010, Draycott returned to work at Station 54 for the first time in approximately six months.
  • HFD’s highest levels of command staff were present for the Roll Call on January 13, 2010, including Chief Boriskie, Assistant Fire Chiefs Omero Longoria and Daniel Snell, District Chief McAteer, AARF division-wide coordinator Ronald Krusleski, as well as HFD’s psychologist and a Firefighters’ Union representative
  • During the January 13, 2010 Roll Call meeting, several firefighters publicly disparaged Draycott and expressed their desire that she not return to Station 54 because of her complaints. During this meeting, Captain Williamson and other firefighters read statements alleging that Draycott was not mentally stable enough to “back the guys up on the line” and “no one wanted her back” because of her past complaints and fear that she would file future complaints, among others.
  • All of this took place in the presence of Chief Boriskie, District Chief McAteer, Assistant Fire Chiefs Longoria and Snell, and AARF division-wide coordinator Ronald Krusleski, all of whom permitted the attacks to continue and did nothing to intervene.
  • Following the January 13, 2010 meeting, Draycott was sent home and once again placed on leave.
  • Later in 2010, Draycott attempted to return to work at another station, but was unable to continue working. In August 2010, Draycott went back on medical leave due to her condition.
  • On information and belief, at the request of the City’s Legal Department, Draycott was evaluated by Dr. Larry M. Nahmias, a clinical psychologist, in late 2010. On February 27, 2011, Dr. Nahmias deemed Draycott psychologically unable to perform her duties as a firefighter presently or in the future. As a result, Draycott sought medical disability retirement.
  • In connection with her disability retirement application, Draycott was also evaluated by a psychiatrist, William K. Drell, hired by the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund. On July 11, 2011, Dr. Drell reported that Draycott could not perform the duties of a firefighter at the HFD due to her medical conditions. Dr. Drell concluded that, “Ms. Draycott’s disabling symptoms are directly related to her work related incidents,” including the sex discrimination and hostile work environment.
  • Relying on Dr. Drell’s July 2011 report, the HFRRF recommended Draycott’s application for on duty occupational disability retirement benefits be approved, and it was thereafter approved.

Here is a copy of the complaint: 2018 USA v Houston

More on the story.

UPDATE: March 1, 2018: City and union respond to fed’s suit with the other side of the story:

City Says It Will ‘Defend Itself’ In Lawsuit Against Fire Department

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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