Sexual Harassment Suit by SC Firefighter Removed to Federal Court

A sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a female firefighter in South Carolina has been removed to US District Court. Rebecca Sterner filed suit late in 2020 naming the Goose Creek Rural Volunteer Fire Department, Fire Chief Robert Maibach, Battalion Chief Gary Melton, and Lieutenant Steve Varlas as defendants.

The suit was originally filed in Berkeley County Court of Common Pleas on November 12, 2020. According to the complaint, Sterner was fired on December 4, 2019, shortly after filing a formal complaint against Lt. Varlas for “bullying and sexual harassment.” The complaint alleges hostile work environment discrimination under South Carolina § 1-13-10, breach of contract, wrongful discharge, negligent supervision, gross negligence, and defamation.

This week, the fire department filed a notice of removal to US District Court for the District of South Carolina on the basis that the complaint contains federal issues. The nature of the federal issues remains unclear, but according to the notice:

  • In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts a claim of discrimination pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”). (Compl. at Par. 17.)

The problem is Count 1 of the complaint clearly states a state law cause of action:

  • FOR A FIRST CAUSE OF ACTION AS TO ALL DEFENDANTS (Hostile Work Environment, S.C. Code Ann.§ 1-13-10 et seq.)
  • 17. To proceed on a hostile work environment claim, under South Carolina Human Affairs Law and Title VII, a plaintiff must show that the offending conduct was “(1) unwelcome, (2) was based on her sex, (3) was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of her employment and create an abusive work environment, and ( 4) was imputable to her employer.”

We will have to wait and see whether the case moves to federal court or remains in state court. Here is a copy of the complaint:

For the Legal Eagles, take a look at the complaint. Does it actually allege a violation of Title VII or any other federal law that would give federal courts jurisdiction?

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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