Illinois Suit Alleges Sexual Harassment Led to Firefighter’s Suicide

The husband of a female firefighter who committed suicide allegedly due to sexual harassment, has filed suit against the fire department and a lieutenant accused of perpetrating the harassment. Daniel Zaboroski filed suit earlier this year as the executor for the estate of his wife, Nicole Hladik. The suit names the Village of Hinsdale, Illinois and Lieutenant Tom McCarthy.

Hladik committed suicide on July 21, 2020, as her probationary period with the Hinsdale Fire Department was coming to an end. As explained in the complaint:

  • During her first six months as a firefighter with the Hinsdale Fire Department, Hladik was assigned to the Gold Division.
  • While assigned to the Gold Division, Hladik was supervised by Captain Mike Neville and Lieutenant Andy Ziemer.
  • During her assignment to the Gold Division, Hladik regularly met and exceeded the legitimate expectations as a probationary firefighter, including earning a commendation during this period.
  • Based on her performance in the Gold Division, Hladik was on track to satisfactorily complete her probation and become a permanent firefighter with the Hinsdale Fire Department.
  • In approximately January 2020, while still on probation, Hladik was re-assigned to the Black Division where Defendant McCarthy supervised Hladik.
  • Once assigned to the Black Division, Defendants engaged in a systematic pattern of conduct to break Hladik and force her to quit because of Hladik’s sex.
  • Immediately upon her transfer to the Black Division, Hladik experienced constant, unwelcomed emotional torment, hostility, hazing, and abuse amounting to sexual discrimination and harassment by Defendants.
  • Throughout her assignment in the Black Division, Defendants intentionally imposed unnecessary and capricious terms and conditions of her employment calculated to prevent Hladik from passing her probation.
  • Defendants did not subject any of the other male firefighters to the same work terms and conditions imposed upon Hladik.
  • As Hladik closed in on the final two weeks of her probation, Defendant Hinsdale and Defendant McCarthy intentionally and without any legitimate reason subjected Hladik to a Performance Improvement Plan that was calculated to embarrass her and discourage her from remaining with the Hinsdale Fire Department.
  • This Performance Improvement Plan was implemented as a pretext to Defendants’ anticipated decision to fail Hladik despite her excellent work performance while at the Hinsdale Fire Department.
  • Defendants’ hostile treatment toward Hladik as she vied for her first full-time employment as a firefighter caused Hladik to believe that she would fall into disrepute for the rest of her career as a firefighter.
  • In other words, Hladik perceived that failing to pass her probation with the Hinsdale Fire Department would negatively impact and permanently prevent her from ever obtaining full-time employment as a firefighter with any other fire department.
  • On July 20, 2020, Hladik complained to her husband that Defendants “ruined her life.”
  • After Defendants dashed Hladik’s hopes of achieving her lifelong goal as a firefighter, Hladik committed suicide on July 21, 2020.
  • In her final words before her death, Hladik described her despair and torment from her work with the Hinsdale Fire Department where she wrote: “Work has destroyed me.”; “I cannot take one more single day. Almost everyone at work will only be relieved.”; and “P.S. You’re welcome Lieutenant, I’m gone. I’m no longer your problem. You win.”
  • At all relevant times herein, Hladik met and exceeded the legitimate expectations for employment as a firefighter with the Hinsdale Fire Department.

The suit alleges sexual discrimination sexual harassment, violation of Hladik’s equal protection rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and intentional infliction of severe emotional distress. Both the Village and Lt. McCarthy have filed pleading denying Zaboroski’s allegations and asking the court to dismiss the suit.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

Recent headlines about the suit.

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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