Female Medics Sue Chicago Fire For Sex Discrimination

Twelve female paramedics who were discharged or suspended by the Chicago Fire Department have filed suit against the City of Chicago claiming that two new physical abilities test administered to them in the academy illegally discriminated against them.

Jennifer Livingston, Kirsten Bain, Tavi Burroughs, Kenia Chavez, Christina Guarino, Katharine Lazzara, Jessica Maples, Shannon Markey, Donna Ruch, Jamie Snevely, Lisette Venegas, and Mary Youngren filed suit last Friday in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.

As explained in the complaint:

  • The principal focus of this complaint is the City’s discriminatory use of physical testing of candidate Fire Paramedics that is not job related and operates as a barrier to employment for women, including the Plaintiffs.
  • This testing has no legally defensible justification and eliminates a significant number of women, but virtually no men. Its discriminatory effect has not been accidental.
  • For the past fifteen years, the City has relied on physical testing to screen out candidates for Fire Paramedic positions not merely in spite of its adverse impact on women but because of it—for the purpose of limiting the number of women employed in uniformed positions in the Chicago Fire Department
  • For decades, before 2000, the City hired both men and women as Fire Paramedics without physical testing—and with no demonstrated adverse consequences. Then, in 2000, the City abruptly reversed course and, for the first time, instituted required physical testing for new Fire Paramedic hires.
  • This new testing requirement was a textbook violation of Title VII. As the Seventh Circuit recently held, the physical testing was, from day one, neither job related nor consistent with business necessity. See Ernst v. City of Chicago.
  • Its only proven effect was its disproportionate exclusion of women.
  • The City has now finally abandoned the physical test the Seventh Circuit condemned in Ernst. The focus of this case is new, replacement physical testing requirements, which the City has adopted in place of the test in Ernst.
  • In Ernst, the City kept women out of Fire Paramedic jobs by devising a test that many of them could not pass, in order to bar their entry to the Training Academy. Because that barrier to employment proved legally problematic, now the City is allowing more women to enter the Academy—but is flunking them before they can graduate. In both cases the mechanism is the same.
  • The City’s discrimination against women in the CFD is stubborn and purposeful. It reflects a deep-seated hostility within the CFD to allowing women to serve. Unequal treatment and hostility to the presence of women in the uniformed ranks of the CFD are standard practice within the CFD, and they are too pervasive to be unintended.

The complaint also points to the following as examples of the City’s hostility toward women:

  1. The City’s failure to accommodate nursing mothers in the CFD.
  2. The City’s failure to provide female Fire Paramedics and firefighters with adequate bathrooms and locker room facilities at the Training Academy. Thirteen women hired into the CFD as firefighters as the result of litigation in Godfrey v. City of Chicago, No. 12 C 8601 (N.D. Ill. May 28, 2015), were assigned to a single locker room with one restroom and one shower—despite the availability of a vacant, adjacent locker room.
  3. The City’s systemic failure to provide female Fire Paramedics and firefighters separate or adequate sleeping quarters, showers and dressing and restroom facilities, in firehouses across the City.
  4. The repeated verbal and physical harassment and intimidation to which female Fire Paramedics and firefighters are subjected, without appropriate corrective action being taken by the City.
  5. The sexually discriminatory treatment of women by the CFD’s Medical Division.

The complaint alleges the fire department developed two tests, the “Lifting and Moving Sequence” test and the “Step Test” , that have a disparate impact upon women. The complaint explains:

  • On information and belief, neither of these tests was professionally developed; instead, both are the CFD’s own DIY inventions. Since approximately 2014, the City has required Fire Paramedic candidates at the Training Academy to take and pass both these new tests as a condition of graduating from the Training Academy and continuing employment as CFD Fire Paramedics.
  • During 2014 and 2015, the City administered its new-fangled “Lifting and Moving Sequence” and “Step Test” to approximately 179 men and 56 women.
  • One hundred percent of the men passed and were allowed to complete the Academy training. By contrast, approximately twenty-one percent of the women, including the 12 Plaintiffs in this case, did not pass and were terminated or placed on unpaid Suspended Assignment and never allowed to return.
  • This level of adverse impact is statistically significant. A 100% pass rate for men is approximately six standard deviations higher than a 79% pass rate for women.
  • Neither the “Lifting and Moving Sequence” nor the “Step Test” is job related. They do not predict ability to perform the job of a CFD Fire Paramedic.
  • They do not distinguish between qualified and unqualified candidates. They do not provide a measure or test of the minimum qualifications necessary for successful performance of the Fire Paramedic job.

The suit seeks reinstatement, backpay, damages, and attorneys fees along with injunctive relief to prevent further use of the tests and/or retaliation against those to objected to the tests.

Here is a copy of the complaint: livingston-v-chicago

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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