Texas Fire Department Sued for Sexual Harassment and Retaliation

A Texas fire department is being sued for sexually harassing, retaliating and terminating a female office worker whose husband is also a firefighter.

Julie Thomas filed suit last week against The Woodland Township Fire Department in US District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Thomas, who served as a Customer Service Representative for the department, claims she was subjected to a litany of crude comments, jokes and innuendos. According to the complaint, once she complained about her treatment, she was disciplined and ultimately terminated while her harassers went unpunished.

Among the allegations in the complaint:

  • Thomas is married to Josh Thomas, a firefighter who works at the WFD.
  • [E]very firefighter “outranks” Ms. Thomas.
  • Thomas was also at the lowest rank of firefighter at this time.
  • Both Mr. and Ms. Thomas were subject to this command and control structure.
  • Jason Washington, Battalion Chief, made a point of staring at Ms. Thomas’ buttocks and made the comment “damn girl, you’re looking good these days!”
  • Washington followed Ms. Thomas and leered at her.
  • Battalion Chief Washington also made comments regarding Ms. Thomas’ husband.
  • Washington alluded to the fact that Ms. Thomas and he could have sex — he pleaded “come on Julie, Josh (Ms. Thomas’ husband) doesn’t have to know.”
  • Thomas Richardson came up to Ms. Thomas and made sound effects that mimicked a motor boat noise which is frequently associated with placing one’s lips on a woman’s breasts and said “Oh girl, the things I can do to you.”
  • The comments, attitude, and actions were frequently made and were severe, outrageous, and pervasive.
  • In August of 2015, Ms. Thomas was walking through the fire station holding a number of small promotional footballs in her arms. These are the type of footballs that are thrown to the audience during high school and other football games.
  • Richardson said “Damn girl, I didn’t know you could juggle that many balls so close to your face.”
  • Richardson enjoyed the comment because he laughed and then made the same joke in a class where Ms. Thomas’ husband and other co-workers were present.
  • Richardson laughed again when he made the comment multiple times.
  • Richardson began spreading rumors that Ms. Thomas was sleeping with a firefighter who was temporarily staying with Ms. Thomas and her husband while his divorce finalized.
  • These rumors were known and condoned by management and Ms. Thomas’ supervisor, and they had a devastating impact on Ms. Thomas’ reputation and were known and condoned by management and Ms. Thomas’ supervisors.
  • By July of 2015, Ms. Thomas had reported to the appropriate authority that Battalion Chief Washington and Lt. Thomas Richardson had sexually harassed her and created a hostile work environment.
  • Previously, the WT and WFD had both promised Ms. Thomas that her reports had been investigated and were being dealt in an appropriate manner.
  • Thomas had not, however, been interviewed, nor had she been provided with a copy of any written report of any investigation.
  • The discriminatory treatment and retaliation against Ms. Thomas continued.
  • In September of 2015, Battalion Chief Washington initiated and created an uncomfortable situation with Ms. Thomas over the purchase of uniforms.
  • In the course of a phone conversation, Battalion Chief Washington began screaming and yelling at Ms. Thomas and was overly critical of her performance.
  • Thomas raised her voice during the call, but managed to remain calm throughout the call.
  • Battalion Chief Washington did not calm down and continued to escalate the aggressive and demeaning tone of the conversation.
  • Thomas, confronted with this unprofessional and harassing behavior, hung up the phone.
  • In response, The Woodlands Township disciplined Ms. Thomas for “poor performance.”
  • Battalion Chief Washington was not reprimanded nor disciplined for his unprofessional behavior in yelling and screaming at a staff member.
  • In late September of 2015, the Woodlands firefighters held a BBQ event.
  • Richardson came up to Ms. Thomas and grabbed her into a hug. When he did, Mr. Richardson then reached down and kissed Ms. Thomas on the top of her head.
  • Thomas backed off immediately and made it clear that she was unhappy with the contact.
  • Again, this conduct was un-welcome and humiliating.
  • Thomas handled the event professionally and disengaged herself from Mr. Richardson and moved to a different part of the party.
  • Annually, around October, all firefighters in the WFD undergo physicals.
  • The physical includes an ultrasound and the firefighters are required to strip down to their underwear.
  • Previously, Battalion Chief Washington had worn a thong for this exam in order to embarrass and humiliate the female ultrasound tech.
  • Battalion Chief Washington had informed Ms. Thomas and others, including her supervisor, Alison Downy, of his joke the previous year.
  • Downy asked if he had worn a thong again or had done anything else.
  • Battalion Chief Washington said that he did not this year, but began to describe the process where gel is smeared on the male genitalia (scrotum) in order to conduct an ultrasound.
  • Battalion Chief Washington described how, during the course of the exam, his penis had flopped over onto the ultrasound tech’s hand.
  • The Battalion Chief made gestures indicating the size of his penis and laughed.
  • Thomas returned to her work, disgusted.

The complaint alleges sexual harassment and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and well as a Constitutional violation of equal protection.

Here is a copy of the complaint: 2018 Thomas v The Woodlands Township

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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