Maryland Fire Company Faces Another Male-On-Male Harassment Suit

A firefighter paramedic who supported the allegations of a male colleague who was being sexually harassed because of his effeminate demeanor, has filed suit in federal court claiming he was retaliated against. Jeffrey James Dean filed suit against the Berlin Fire Company last week claiming sexual discrimination under Title VII, harassment and retaliation.

Dean claims his support for Zack Tyndall, who filed an $8 million lawsuit in 2013 that ended in a monetary settlement, led fire company members and supervisors to begin harassing him. The facts as alleged in the complaint:

  • There was a deliberate and conscious effort on the part of, Fitzgerald, Donohue, Trimble and Simpson, to harass and intimidate Zack Tyndall and drive him from the Department because of their belief that Tyndall, who they perceived to be “effeminate,” did not conform to their gender stereotypes.
  • Because Tyndall was perceived to be nonconforming to Berlin Fire Company members’ and leader’s’ gender stereotypes, they subjected him to an objectively hostile and abusive work environment.
  • The discriminatory conduct began with Brian Trimble. Trimble repeatedly made gender-stereotypical slurs about and in front of Tyndall, Dean and other firefighters and civilians. Mr. Tyndall repeatedly requested that Trimble stop.
  • Tyndall and Dean asked Trimble, Simpson, Fitzgerald and Donohue to stop and on numerous occasions would complain regarding the constant harassment.
  • Tyndall emailed John Holloway, President of the Board of Directors, to advise him about the harassment.
  • In early 2012 Tyndall went directly to Trimble to again complain. Trimble told him that he had a plan to get rid of him that year.
  • Trimble asked Tyndall “If I keep picking on you and calling you gay, can I make you quit?”
  • Tyndall and Dean continued to complain to persons in leadership positions in the Fire Company, all to no avail.
  • Left with no choice, Tyndall determined to take his complaints to the Mayor and Human Resources Director of Berlin.
  • Dean agreed to go with him and to provide a statement as to what he had seen and heard.
  • On February 24, 2012 Dean and Tyndall related the history of events at the Fire Company to the Mayor and Human Resources Director of the Town of Berlin.
  • The Town of Berlin conducted an investigation which ultimately led to the dismissal of Mr. Donohoe. Fitzgerald, Trimble and Simpson, however, not only continued their practices but began a campaign against Dean and Tyndall. For example, Mr. Fitzgerald, president of the fire company, made a comment at a regular meeting of the fire company about “two employees going up to Town Hall to file a grievance”.
  • This led to members calling for Dean’s and Tyndal’ s termination.
  • As time passed, the name calling and physical harassment continued and heightened. Dean’s support of Tyndall had an immediate effect in the way he was treated by leadership. Harassment that had previously been reserved to Tyndall was now expanded to include Dean.
  • Dean, who had never been disciplined for anything, began to be chastised for miniscule matters and was written up for formal discipline for manufactured offenses or for something so minor as letting leaves blow into the engine bay of the Firehouse.
  • Leadership not only failed to respond to the complaints; but openly indicated that they were going to drive Dean and Tyndall from the Department.
  • Trimble, Simpson and Fitzgerald continued to harass, isolate and ostracize Dean from activities at the Berlin Fire Company both as a volunteer fireman and as a paid paramedic.
  • In the summer of 2012, there was increasing tension within the Berlin Fire Company due to the Company’s refusal to correct the ongoing pattern of harassment and discrimination in the face of continued requests from the Town of Berlin. The Town threatened to cut off funding of the Fire Company unless it made positive changes in the policies and conduct of the leadership of the Fire Company.
  • The Berlin Fire Company refused and the Town cut funding for the Berlin Fire Company.
  • Members of the Berlin Fire Company and the leadership increased their threats and intimidation directed to Mr. Dean.
  • Dean began having significant anxiety and depression and was started on antidepressants by his physician.

The complaint also alleges others examples of openly hostile conduct committed by members.

  • For example, during the first approximately six years of Dean’s employment by BFC his work partner was Gary Purnell, the Berlin Fire Company’s only African American volunteer, member or employee, who had a speech impediment.
  • While Dean worked with Gary Purnell he witnessed members and leadership refer to Gary as “n[word]” “coon”, “DAN” (dumb ass n[word]), “marble-mouth” and other racial and derogatory epithets both in an out of his presence.
  • Members of the department, including leadership referred to him as “Spot”, in reference to a company photograph in which Mr. Purnell was the only black spot in a sea of white faces.
  • When Mr. Purnell would enter the room, members would shout out “Where the white women at?”
  • When Mr. Purnell rose at an awards banquet to accept his award for twenty-five years of service, members yelled out the same refrain.
  • Laura Puckett was an administrative assistant at the Berlin Fire Company during Dean’s employment there. She reported directly, to David Fitzgerald, President.
  • She was subject to continued sexual harassment by both members and leadership.
  • For example, in the presence of Ms. Puckett and members of the Berlin Fire Company, Norris Philip Donohue, an EMS Supervisor, commented at the time when Berlin Fire Company was installing security key swipe readers, that “Pretty soon we are going to have to install one on Laura’s ass”. When she confronted him, he responded “Yeah, so we can keep a record on who has come and gone”.
  • Donohue would also comment to Zachery Tyndall, another paramedic, when Ms. Puckett was out sick, that Tyndall would have to suck his dick because Laura was not there to do it. Members and leadership would regularly make derogatory sexual comments to and about her.
  • Many of the acts complained of were witnessed by other members of the Berlin Fire Company. Most were reported to the leadership of the Company and many were, in fact, committed by the leadership of the Company.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Dean v Berlin Fire Company

Here is news coverage of the lawsuit.

Earlier Posts about Tyndall’s suit and his settlement.

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

Minnesota Fire Department Facing Age Discrimination Suit

An administrative services manager for the Rochester (MN) Fire Department has filed suit alleging age discrimination. Curtis Pronk filed suit last month claiming he was forced to resign effective August 31, 2021 to avoid his position being downgraded to a lower paying position.

Three Memphis Firefighters Terminated Over the Death of Tyre Nichols

Three Memphis firefighters have been terminated in the aftermath of the death of Tyre Nichols. Nichols died on January 10, 2023, three days after he was beaten by Memphis police officers who have since been charged with murder.