Charlotte Facing FMLA Retaliation Suit

A civilian analyst with the Charlotte Fire Department has filed suit claiming the department retaliated against her in violation of the Family Medical Leave Act.

Rachel Pillar filed the action earlier this year in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, but the city of Charlotte has been successful in having the case removed to US District Court.

Pillar’s complaint includes a litany of allegations of a hostile workplace that began shortly after she returned from maternity leave in 2009:

  • “The Fire Chief resented Pillar’s FMLA leave for maternity and stated he did not like ‘paying for women to have babies.’ Upon information and belief, the Deputy Chief [her direct supervisor] shares this view.”
  • “Upon information and belief, the Fire Department has a hierarchical structure and attitude in which women are lesser than men and administrative employees are lesser-than operational employees, sworn firefighters (“Operational Employees”). Female administrative employees are considered the least favored and are treated the worst.”
  • “upon her return from FMLA leave, the Deputy Chief began looking for ways to terminate Pillar’s employment, including increasingly assigning Pillar more duties”
  • “The Deputy Chief planned to make Pillar’s job so difficult he could terminate her for performance or she would quit on her own volition.
  • “Pillar became increasingly distressed about coming to work because the environment was so uncomfortable due to the Deputy Chief’s demand for unrealistic perfection and the multitude of duties that had been assigned to her.”
  • “Coworkers, including Pillar, cried in their offices because of the stress and several female employees stated they became physically ill and were filled with dread when they arrived at work each day. One female employee experienced panic attacks whenever the Fire Chief asked her to report to his office. Pillar also experienced shortness of breath, had a constant feeling of dread, and felt unsafe at work.”
  • “The stress and hostile work environment profoundly affected Pillar, triggering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) and a major depressive episode’ that impacted her work and home life.”
  • “On August 19, 2011, at a going away party for a coworker, the former HR Manager told Pillar that the Deputy Chief had been searching for reasons to fire Pillar since November 2009, when she returned to work following approved FMLA maternity leave.”
  • “When the HR Manager informed Pillar that the Deputy Chief had previously searched looking for reasons to terminate her, she became even more terrified and fearful for her job security.”
  • “Despite repeated promises for change, the Deputy Chief made no real and lasting changes to Pillar’s heavy workload, and Pillar feared that she could never succeed if she was always overwhelmed and anxious due to the heavy workload and unrealistic expectations.”
  • “By October 2011, Pillar was crying in her office several days a week, and her work environment continued to deteriorate.”
  • “On October 18, 2011, the Deputy Chief reprimanded Pillar for not including other Fire Administration employees in a Boss’s Day lunch for him. The Deputy Chief told Pillar to apologize to the coworkers for not inviting them to the lunch, although they did not directly report to the Deputy Chief. Pillar apologized to each individual at his instruction, but felt humiliated and belittled, which reduced her to tears.”
  • “On or about December 22, 2011, upon the recommendation of her therapist, she took vacation time and then requested FMLA leave on December 30, 2011 to begin intensive outpatient treatment for severe depression”
  • “Pillar’s health began to improve until she received a letter during her leave notifying her that she was recommended for termination and needed to represent herself at a termination hearing that was scheduled during her FMLA leave.”
  • “This news caused Pillar extreme emotional distress, triggered multiple panic attacks, and caused a significant setback in her healing process.”
  • “The Letter explained that Pillar was being terminated for missing deadlines, -including deadlines that occurred during her FMLA leave or that had not-yet occurred, and for an alleged and undocumented drop in performance.”
  • “Pillar’s legal counsel was notified on or about April 17, 2012 that the City of Charlotte was upholding Pillar’s termination.”
  • “The City of Charlotte terminated Pillar’s employment effective May 11, 2012.”

The 27 page complaint includes four counts:

  • Count I – FMLA retaliation
  • Count II – negligent supervision of the deputy chief
  • Count III – negligent retention of the deputy chief
  • Count IV – negligent infliction of emotional distress

The city has responded to the complaint denying the allegations.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Pillar v Charlotte

Here is news 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.
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