Illinois Harassment-Suicide Suit to Proceed

A lawsuit filed by the husband of a firefighter who committed suicide allegedly due to work-related gender-based discrimination, has survive a motion to dismiss. Daniel Zaboroski filed suit last year as the executor for the estate of his wife, Nicole Hladik, and on his own behalf. 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 ruling:

  • Hladik wanted to become a firefighter from an early age.
  • She trained at Western Springs Fire Department Training Academy, graduating with honors and second in her class.
  • On June 20, 2019, she received her certification from the State of Illinois as a firefighter.
  • The next month she was hired by the Hinsdale Fire Department as a full-time firefighter and paramedic on a probationary basis for one year.
  • To start her employment, Hladik attended Romeoville Fire Academy; she again graduated with honors and second in her class.
  • She was sworn in as a Hinsdale firefighter on September 17, 2019.
  • At that time, Hladik was only the third female firefighter in the department’s over 100-year history.
  • During her entire employment, Hladik was the only female firefighter in the department.
  • During her first six months, Hladik was assigned to the Gold division where she was supervised by Captain Mike Neville and Lieutenant Andy Ziemer.
  • During that time, Hladik regularly met and exceeded the legitimate expectations as a probationary firefighter, including earning a commendation during this period.
  • Hladik was on track to satisfactorily complete her probation and become a permanent firefighter with the Fire Department.
  • At all times, Hladik exceeded all legitimate expectations required to be a firefighter in the department.
  • In January 2020, while still on probation, Hladik was re-assigned to the Black division and McCarthy became her supervisor.
  • Once there, Defendants engaged in a “systematic pattern of conduct to break Hladik and force her to quit” because of her sex.
  • Hladik experienced emotional torment, hostility, hazing, and abuse by Defendants.
  • Defendants also intentionally imposed unnecessary terms and conditions on her employment to prevent her from passing her probationary period.
  • This included public ridicule, interrogations about her knowledge of fire services, insults of her competency by McCarthy and being told to quit.
  • On at least one occasion, McCarthy forced Hladik to perform training tasks such as wearing a blindfold to operate a firehose in a simulated fire.
  • Male firefighters were not subjected to similar treatment.
  • In the last two weeks of her probation, Defendants, without reason, placed Hladik on a Performance Improvement Plan designed to make her fail.
  • Defendants’ actions caused Hladik to believe she would fail and would not be able to become a permanent firefighter.
  • On July 20, 2020, Hladik told her husband that Defendants “ruined her life.”
  • The next day, July 21, 2020, Hladik died by suicide.
  • Before she died, 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.”

Zaboroski filed suit alleging gender discrimination under Title VII, § 1983 Fourteenth Amendment violations, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and loss of consortium. The defendants sought to have several of the claims dismissed. Judge Mary R. Rowland of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, refused ruling as follows:

  • Plaintiff alleges that Hinsdale, through its supervisor McCarthy, abused, harassed, and discriminated against Hladik based on sex in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • The Supreme Court in Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), “held for the first time that a municipal government could be a proper defendant under § 1983.”
  • To state a § 1983 claim against a municipality, a plaintiff must show that she: “(1) suffered a deprivation of a federal right; (2) as a result of either an express municipal policy, widespread custom, or deliberate act of a decision-maker with final policy-making authority for the [municipality]; which (3) was the proximate cause of [her] injury.”
  • At this pleading stage, Plaintiff’s allegations are sufficient to state a Monell claim.
  • To prevail on a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress under Illinois law, a plaintiff must prove: “(1) that the defendant’s conduct was truly extreme and outrageous, (2) that the defendant either intended that his conduct would cause severe emotional distress or knew that there was a high probability that his conduct would do so, and (3) that the defendant’s conduct did in fact cause severe emotional distress.”
  • Plaintiff has pled conduct that could be constitute extreme and outrageous. Plaintiff alleges that Hladik experienced “emotional torment, hostility, hazing, and abuse,” imposed unnecessary terms and conditions on her employment specifically calculated to prevent her from passing probation, verbally confronted Hladik in public, and subjected her to humiliating interrogations.
  • This harassment was in large part led by McCarthy, the person responsible for determining whether she passed her probationary period to become permanently employed as a firefighter.
  • Thus McCarthy’s status as a person with control over Hladik’s future employment support a finding that Plaintiff has stated a plausible IIED claim.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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