US DOJ Sues NY Fire Companies Over Harassment of Female Firefighter

The US Department of Justice has filed suit against town-village of Harrison and two fire departments within the town accusing them sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation. The suit stems for the treatment of former firefighter Angela Bommarito by the town, its police chief, Harrison Volunteer Fire Department No. 1, and Fire District Number Two of Harrison.

A press release issued by US Attorney Damian Williams quoted from the complaint at length, and provide some factual context to the allegations:

  • In 2015, Angela Bommarito joined the HARRISON Fire Department.
  • In her first month on the job, a senior firefighter, Henry Mohr, pressured Bommarito with unwanted sexual advances.
  • Mohr later also harassed and stalked Bommarito, including by repeatedly following her and calling her on numerous occasions.
  • Further, Mohr used sexually demeaning expletives to describe Bommarito in front of other firefighters.
  • HARRISON FIRE DEPARTMENT leaders learned of Mohr’s harassment, including through reports by Bommarito.
  • After those officials failed to take any employment action against Mohr and the harassment persisted, Bommarito filed a report with HARRISON’s Police Department.
  • In response, HARRISON’s then-Police Chief told Mohr, in a recorded interaction, that Bommarito’s presence at the firehouse was a “temptation,” which was “hard to resist sometimes,” and that the Police Chief “want[ed] to broker a deal with the Town to make sure this whole thing dies” so that he could get Mohr “out of this situation.”
  • Bommarito subsequently signed a resignation letter prepared by the Police Chief after he threatened to arrest her and report her other relationships to HARRISON’s Fire Commissioners.
  • Soon after, Bommarito attempted to withdraw the resignation, but the HARRISON FIRE DEPARTMENT proceeded with the termination of her employment.
  • Following Bommarito’s departure from the Harrison Fire Department, Mohr continued to harass and stalk her.
  • Mohr was eventually arrested for his harassment of Bommarito and pled guilty to harassment in the second degree. 
  • A family court judge also entered an order of protection against Mohr.

According to the complaint, the EEOC investigated and found reasonable cause to believe Bommarito had been discriminated against. They sought to have the matter resolved through a conciliatory process with the defendants, but when that failed, they asked the DOJ to file suit.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for Bommarito, as well as a court order mandating policy changes and training to address sexual harassment and retaliation.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

One issue the complaint neglects to discuss is whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 can be used to remedy discrimination against non-employee – volunteers. The complaint characterizes Bommarito as a “non-salaried firefighter” who received “remuneration” including “(1) life insurance; (2) disability benefits; and (3) college tuition assistance.” Title VII governs employment discrimination, which by its nature requires an employment relationship. Volunteers may not be employees… see Marie v. American Red Cross, 771 F.3d 344 (6th Cir. 2014), applying the test established in Nationwide Mutual Insurance v. Darden, 503 U.S. 318 (1992) to conclude volunteers are not employees under Title VII.

For this reason, many attorneys will plead alternative theories in their complaints involving volunteers, such as alleging violations of Title II (public accommodations), and/or use state discrimination laws that may provide broader protection to non-employee/volunteers.

Perhaps US Attorney Williams believes this may be a good test case to get the issue before the US Supreme Court.

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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