Fairfax County Fire Sued Again For Sexual Harassment

On the heals of a firefighter suicide associated with allegations of sex-based cyberbullying, two sexual harassment lawsuits, and an investigation into sexually inappropriate photos being posted by the department’s investigating officer, a female battalion chief has filed a sexual harassment suit.

Battalion Chief Cheri Zosh filed suit in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia yesterday alleging that her efforts to stop a captain from harassing a female subordinate resulted in retaliation against her by the department leadership. Chief Zosh also alleges the department failed to address her complaints about the same captain.

The complaint is very fact intensive, with counts for both hostile work environment and retaliation. It is worth the read, but here are a few highlights:

  • On April 29, 2014, Battalion Chief Zosh received a report from Firefighter Magaly Hernandez that Captain Bruley was creating a hostile work environment for her based on her sex.
  • Hernandez told Zosh that Captain Bruley physically encroached on her space on three separate occassions and had made inappropriate sexual comments toward her. Later, Hernandez told Zosh that Bruley had also made unwanted sexual advances and comments toward her, demanded hugs, and wanted to know where she was at all times, including when she used the restroom.
  • That same day, Battalion ChiefZosh spoke with Captain Bruley and directed him not to touch or encroach upon Hernandez and to keep two anns lengths away from her. Bruley claimed that Hernandez was sending mixed messages to him because she was friendly with other shift members.
  • Captain Bruley’s response to the April 29 meeting was to not speak or interact with Firefighter Hernandez at all unless it was business related. He kept a physical distance from her at all times, approximately five to ten feet. In addition, he started keeping a log, tracking with whom and how Hernandez interacted.
  • On July 19, 2014, Zosh learned that Bruley was keeping notes on the whereabouts of both her and Firefighter Hernandez in a computer file. He did not have any notes on anyone else.
  • The next day, Zosh again raised the issue of Bruley’s tracking and harassment with Deputy Chief Roatch. She told Roatch that she was concerned that “there is an unhealthy and perverted obsession that Bruley has with FF Hernandez” and that his tracking of her daily activities and moves is in direct result of being ordered not to touch or encroach Firefighter Hernandez.
  • On July 24, 2014, Zosh told her supervisor that she was concerned that Bruley’s obsessive behavior could lead to violence and recommended a Fitness for Duty evaluation. She also recommended a formal investigation for sexual harassment and retaliation. Despite this, Defendant took no corrective action against Bruley.
  • On July 24, 2014, Captain Bruley told Zosh, in the presence of Captain II Charles R. Cunningham, that Firefighter Hernandez should inform him if and when she needs to use the bathroom.
  • On or about July 28, 2014, Battalion Chief Zosh met with Jay Grove, Defendant’s EEO Officer, in an attempt to cause an EEO investigation about Bruley’ s sexual harassment of Firefighter Hernandez. Instead, Mr. Grove interrupted Chief Zosh and stated that he and Assistant Chief Caussin had talked and agreed that the issue was one of supervision and management and not harassment. He asked if Bruley and Hernandez had had a relationship.
  • Zosh explained that Bruley had made advances toward Hernandez but that Hernandez rejected them.
  • Zosh described Bruley’s harassment of Hernandez to the EEO Officer. She told him that she had witnessed Bruley encroaching on Hernandez’s space and touching her with his body.
  • Zosh also expressed concern that Bruley had escalating anger towards the Hernandez and her – he and yelled at her even though she was his supervisor – and said that she feared that Bruley’s anger would result in violence.
  • The EEO Officer told Zosh that she was being transferred and interrogated her about her supervision of Bruley. He also told Zosh that she should document the situation correctly because if she didn’t she would “be bent over the desk” in the process.
  • At the end of the July 28th meeting, the EEO Officer told Zosh that she could not file a complaint about Bruley’ s behavior because she was a third party.
  • On August 22, 2014, Zosh met with Deputy Chief Roatch, Assistant Chief Caussin and Dr. Don Stewart, Defendant’s Medical Director. Dr. Stewart agreed with Zosh’s recommendation that Bruley undergo Fitness for Duty and psychological evaluations.
  • At that meeting, Dr. Stewart recommended a full forensic psychological evaluation on Bruley due to his pattern of behaviors. The Fire Chief and Assistant Fire Chief allowed Bruley to continue serving as a Captain and supervisor.
  • On October 18, Assistant Chief Caussin verbally told Bruley to stop tracking Hernandez and Zosh. Four days later, Bruley requested information about Hernandez from her former Captain. Again, he was warned not to concern himself with Firefighter Hernandez because he no longer supervised her. However, he continued to track Hernandez and Zosh electronically and to spread a rumor that they were having an affair.
  • Zosh met again with FC Bowers, AC Caussin, DC Roatch and Dr. Stewart on November 10, 2014. During that meeting, Dr. Stewart recommended a “senior level fitness for duty” and stated that, in his opinion Bruley has a personality disorder which it seemed to surface every three years. Dr. Stewart noted Bruley’s history of similar behaviors toward women in the past including with his ex-wife and ex-fiance. Chief Zosh also noted that she had concerns that about Bruley acting out violently. The Fire Chief and Assistant Fire Chief allowed Bruley to continue serving as a Captain and supervisor.
  • After Bruely ignored the October 22 warning, Assistant Chief Caussin issued Bruley another warning on November 15, 2014. Again, he was ordered to cease all investigation of Zosh and Hernandez.
  • Because Bruley’s rumor spreading and tracking of the two women continued, on December 19, 2014, Battalion Chief Zosh again complained to the Fire Chief that his behavior was escalating and that her work environment was hostile.
  • On February 8, 2015, Captain Bruley contacted the Fairfax County Police Department requesting an accident report on Battalion Chief Zosh’ s work vehicle. Despite having received two orders to cease his investigations of Zosh and Hernandez, Bruley continued to use his work computer and time to electronically track the whereabouts of both.
  • As Bruley’s harassment continued, ChiefZosh again complained to FC Bowers, AC Caussin and DC Roatch. On February 24, 2015, she sent her three supervisors an email stating that Bruley’ s behavior continued to be out of control and noting that the Department did not correct his behaviors. In that email, she requested a workplace free of harassment by Bruley.
  • She met with the Fire Chief personally the next day to tell him that Bruley continued to stalk her and asked for a harassment free workplace. She asked him how could she protect herself now that Bruley has moved on to trying to access her personal information and told him she was thinking about getting a protective order.
  • Rather than addressing Bruley’s behavior, on February 25, 2015, Defendant responded by subjecting Zosh to a three hour interrogation session by Guy Morgan, Defendant’s Professional Standard’s Officer. Morgan questioned Zosh about her supervisory actions and her relationship with Firefighter Hernandez (apparently believing the rumor started by Bruley) as if she were the wrongdoer.
  • After Hernandez refused his advances and Chief Zosh attempted to discipline Bruley for his unwanted sexual advances toward Hernandez in July 2014, Bruley began to spread the rumor that Battalion Chief Zosh was having a sexual relationship with Firefighter Hernandez.
  • [T]he Fire Department has not disciplined Bruley for spreading these rumors, or even ordered him to stop.
  • To the contrary, the leadership of the Department has contributed to the false rumor.
  • Deputy Chief Roatch granted Bruley’ s request to be transferred away from Zosh’ s supervision and she is prohibited from serving on the same shift as Bruley in his Battalion. At present, Bruley continues to tell others in the Department, including those under Zosh’ s command, that she had an affair with Hernandez while she had supervisory responsibility over her.

Hernandez is the plaintiff in one of the earlier sexual harassment suits. More on the Hernandez suit here.

Here is a copy of Chief Zosh’s complaint: Zosh v Fairfax County

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.

Check Also

Four Firefighters Seek to Hold DCFEMS in Contempt Over No-Beard Rule

Four members of the DCFEMS are asking a federal court to reopen two religious discrimination cases and find the city in contempt for violating a permanent injunction by enforcing the no beard requirement. Steven Chasin, Calvert Potter, Jasper Sterling, Hassan Umrani filed the action earlier this month

Court Rules Volunteer Compensation Makes Them Employees

The US District Court for the Western District of Washington has ruled that two believed-to-be volunteer firefighters who received shift stipends and point-based bonuses were actually employees entitled to minimum wage and overtime for the 3,000 hours per year they claim they worked. Luis Aponte and Jennifer Self served with Mason County Fire Protection District No. 16.