Iowa Firefighter Files Suit Alleging Discrimination

An Iowa City firefighter who has been on unpaid leave since 2021 has filed suit alleging sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation. Sadie McDowell filed suit in Johnson County District Court claiming she has been the victim of offensive behavior for most of her career.

According to the complaint, McDowell was denied recognition for several of her achievements and passed over for promotion on account of her gender and/or sexual orientation. When she complained about the discrimination, she was retaliated against. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Sadie has been an extraordinarily exceptional firefighter and employee.
  • Sadie is lesbian.
  • A fire officer told Sadie that some guys were uncomfortable working with her “because they don’t want to make a joke or say something that would get them fired.”
  • During her first year of employment, someone entered the women’s bathroom while Sadie was showering and absconded with her pants.
  • Male firefighters entered and used bathrooms designated for women.
  • After a female medic complained about men using the women’s bathroom, a male Lieutenant called her a “bitch.”
  • After Sadie suffered a work-related knee injury, she was required to work light duty at Station Similarly situated men were expected to work significantly fewer hours or none at all.
  • Sadie experienced medical complications and a delay in healing because of the increased physical activity.
  • Many male firefighters groused about pregnant employees being allowed to go on light duty, insisting they were getting “special treatment.”
  • Throughout her ten-plus years of employment, Sadie heard male firefighters and fire officers make sexually inappropriate comments nearly every single day.
  • The men would encourage each other to look at the “boobs” or “butt” of various women. They would point out women they called “sluts,” who were doing the “walk of shame.” They would comment on the way women’s rear ends looked in yoga pants or short denim shorts. They pointed out revealing clothing, saying, “I would never let my daughter wear that, but thank God that girl is.”
  • Male firefighters often discussed and critiqued the sexual and dating history of their female coworkers.
  • For instance, male firefighters warned Sadie not to be like one of their female colleagues, who they said “slept her way through the fire and police departments.”
  • On another occasion, an Iowa City police officer joined firefighters at Sadie’s stationhouse for dinner. They discussed a female dispatcher they claimed had engaged in affairs with several married officers.
  • The men referred to the dispatcher as a “slut,” but did not make derogatory comments about the married male officers with whom she was supposedly sleeping with.
  • Although the comments were made in front of senior firefighters, a Lieutenant, a Captain, and a Battalion Chief; none of them spoke up or stopped the discussion.
  • In fact, at the end of dinner, the Lieutenant stood up and announced he was on his way to dispatch to look at a report—implying he was going to get sexual favors from the female dispatcher they were disparaging. The room erupted in laughter.
  • Male firefighters characterized female firefighters and fire officers as being unstable, too emotional, or weak leaders.
  • If a call for service concluded during a time when University students were out partying, that same Captain often directed Sadie to drive through the downtown loop so he and other male firefighters could ogle young women and comment on their bodies and/or clothing.
  • They referred to the loop as “the Lust Lap.”
  • Male firefighters told Sadie that she had “the hottest wife in the Department.”
  • A male firefighter told Sadie his wife was not sexually satisfied. He asked Sadie how he could get better at “going down on” his wife and for her to explain how she “pleased [her] wife orally.”
  • Jokes about date rape were common. In 2014 or 2015, firefighters received mandatory training about patient care for victims of sexual assault. One senior firefighter joked that he was changing the name of his golf team for an upcoming charitable event to the name of a particular date rape drug.
  • Also in 2014 or 2015, the City required employees to undergo diversity training. Male firefighters and fire officers complained and made rude and offensive comments before, during, and after the training. One Captain (now a Battalion Chief) characterized diversity training as an “attack on white men.”
  • Male firefighters and mangers repeatedly played the game “Fuck Marry Kill,” in which participants had to chose whether they would prefer to “fuck,” “marry,” or “kill” particular women.
  • In the summer of 2017, a male firefighter subjected Sadie to unwanted and non-consensual kissing and sexual groping. He slapped her rear end. He propositioned her and suggested they participate in a “threesome” with his girlfriend.
  • A week or so later, Sadie confronted the man about his actions and expressed how violated she felt. The man responded that the incident was Sadie’s fault, explaining, “I couldn’t help myself because your body is just too sexy.”
  • Sadie buried the memory of this assault until 2021, when the man began using the bed next to hers in their shared sleeping quarters. She was scared to sleep and repeatedly imagined him attacking her again.
  • On March 9, 2021, Sadie met with Chief Grier and complained about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. She shared that she no longer felt safe at work and worried that her coworkers might not have her back in a dangerous situation.
  • On March 26, Sadie met with Assistant City Manager Rachel Kilburg and reiterated her concerns about discrimination, harassment, retaliation and safety. Kilburg responded, “What are we going to have to do—fire all of them?”
  • On March 27, Sadie questioned the Fire Department’s 2021 Strategic Plan because the goals regarding equity, diversity, and inclusion were vague and lacked measurable action steps.
  • Battalion Chief Greg Tinnes yelled at and chastised Sadie for hours, claiming that her feedback regarding the Strategic Plan was “disrespectful.” His voice was shaking as he described his anger and frustration with her. Tinnes called Sadie “spiteful.” He said he no longer trusted that he could “be [him]self” around her. He said, “We’re not sure what happened to you. You seem to just be focused on the negative now.” Sadie left the meeting in tears.
  • On March 31, Sadie once again complained about discrimination, harassment, and retaliation to Rachel Kilburg and Director of Human Resources Karen Jennings. Jennings promised Sadie there would be an internal investigation, but indicated it could take “awhile.”
  • In the meantime, Jennings recommended that Sadie take sick leave. She reminded Sadie that HR would need a doctor’s note for sick leave that exceeded 48 hours.
  • Sadie was confused because she wasn’t sick, but Jennings suggested that Sadie’s doctor connect the request to feeling unsafe at work.
  • Sadie’s doctor provided a letter indicating she would need leave for the next four weeks and explained the reason was Sadie feeling unsafe at work.
  • Defendant denied Sadie’s request for sick leave and required her to submit a doctor’s certification for Family Medical Leave.
  • On April 29, Sadie called Human Resource Representative Tracy Robinson and discussed her unresolved complaints regarding discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Sadie informed Robinson that she did not feel comfortable returning to work until the City could provide assurance that the fears for her safety were unfounded.
  • Later that day, Jennings placed Sadie on administrative leave and asked Sadie to provide a written statement explaining why she felt threatened.
  • On May 4, Sadie provided Jennings with a seven-page written statement and also included her June 16, 2020, letter to Chief Grier.
  • Sadie questioned why the City was suddenly willing to place her on paid administrative leave and noted that nothing she had communicated to Robinson on April 29 was any different than her complaints of March 9, March 26, or March 31.
  • Sadie outlined many of the inappropriate sexist, sexual, and racist comments; her attempts to implement changes into the culture of the Fire Department, and the hostile responses she received from coworkers and fire officers.
  • On May 14, Defendant retained Michele Brott, an outside attorney, to begin an investigation of Sadie’s complaints
  • On Friday, July 27, Jennings notified Sadie by email that Brott had finished her investigation and Sadie was expected to return to work on Monday, August 2.
  • Sadie emailed Jennings with questions about the investigation and explained that she did not feel comfortable returning to work without more information. Sadie informed Jennings that she was going to use an appropriate time accrual to excuse her absence on Monday.
  • Jennings responded and again refused to provide any information about the investigation, its finding or Sadie’s safety. Jennings did state that the City had delivered messages against retaliatory behavior, but did not indicate who had delivered or received those messages.
  • Jennings denied Sadie’s request for additional leave and directed her to “report on Monday as scheduled.”
  • On Sunday, August 1, Sadie called Battalion Chief Zach Hickman to request sick leave for Monday. He laughed and said, “You have been directed by HR to report to work tomorrow and told that you can’t use sick leave.”
  • Sadie was represented by Iowa City Fire Fighters IAFF Local 610. The collective bargaining agreement between City and the union permitted firefighters to use up to 48 hours of sick leave without a doctor’s note.
  • Sadie referenced the Union contact and repeated her request to Battalion Chief Hickman. He replied, “Well then, I am denying your request for use of sick leave.”
  • Male firefighters were never denied sick leave of 48 hours or less.
  • Firefighters who had not engaged in protected activity were never denied sick leave of 48 hours or less.
  • Only after her lawyer intervened was Sadie finally permitted to take leave.
  • This ordeal has caused Sadie to develop a myriad of debilitating symptoms and mental health conditions including Major Depressive Disorder and Other Trauma and Stressor Related Disorder.
  • Although Sadie is still technically employed by Defendant, she is not being paid and cannot return to work.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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