Illinois Lieutenant Claims Retaliation

An Illinois fire lieutenant who claims he was retaliated against after reporting sexually harassing behavior in his department, has filed suit alleging retaliation, hostile work environment, and whistleblower violations. Steven Edwards filed suit against the Mount Prospect Fire Department, Fire Chief Brian Lambel, Deputy Chief John Dolan, Battalion Chief Aaron Grandgeorge, and HR Director Heidi Neu.

The suit was filed in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Lt. Edwards claims he was promised a promotion to battalion chief, and was being groomed for the next opening. However, after he complained to the fire chief about sexual inappropriate conversations and activities in the work place, his relationship with others in the department changed dramatically. As explained in the complaint:

  • In fear of retaliation, Lt. Edwards stated that he wanted to keep his complaint anonymous.
  • Despite being promised anonymity, Lt. Edwards soon realized that other members of the MPFD knew about his complaint.
  • In fact, Chief Lambel informed DC Dolan and BC Grandgeorge of his discussion with Lt. Edwards.
  • Just one week after Lt. Edwards reported the unlawful and offensive work environment, on January 24, 2020, BC Grandgeorge responded by issuing to Lt. Edwards the first negative performance evaluation of Lt. Edwards’s career.
  • The following month, on or about February 21, 2020, Lt. Edwards met with Chief Lambel and Ms. Neu to discuss his hostile work environment complaint. During this meeting, Lt. Edwards again reported the sexually offensive and hostile environment.
  • On or about February 24, 2020, Ms. Neu informed Lt. Edwards that the department’s investigation into his complaint had closed. She further informed Lt. Edwards that the department determined BC Grandgeorge had, in fact, violated the department’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy.
  • The Village, however, clearly remained uninterested in cleaning up the egregious work environment that permeated the department, as it merely asked BC Grandgeorge to serve a 24-hour suspension for his unlawful behavior and chose not to discipline a single other member for participating in the offensive and unlawful activity.
  • BC Grandgeorge told Lt. Edwards that he knew it was Lt. Edwards who had reported the conduct.
  • BC Grandgeorge was not required to serve the 24-hour suspension until nearly four months later, undermining the impact of even the little discipline the Village did impose.
  • The retaliation against Lt. Edwards then continued in 2020 when the MPFD refused to promote Lt. Edwards to Battalion Chief when BC Uidl retired, as he was previously told was “the plan.”
  • Although Lt. Edwards had the most experience out of the applicants, including having served as Acting Battalion Chief, and notwithstanding the previously stated intent to promote him to this very vacancy, the MPFD rejected Lt. Edwards for the position of Battalion Chief and instead selected a candidate who had not reported the unlawful and discriminatory workplace.
  • Others who had also not complained were rewarded with promotions, including Tom Wang, who had, himself, participated in the behavior, and was thereafter promoted to Deputy Chief. The selection committee included Chief Lambel, Ms. Neu, and DC Dolan, all of whom were aware of Lt. Edwards’s complaint.
  • Thereafter, the retaliation continued and, in fact, escalated.
  • Defendants have treated Lt. Edwards disparately, isolated him, and treated him in a manner that has affected his ability to perform all of his job duties.
  • Members of the department, including BC Grandgeorge, stopped speaking to Lt. Edwards, going so far as to leave the room as soon as Lt. Edwards entered.
  • Lt. Edwards’s training duties ceased entirely.
  • Moreover, although the MPFD knew Lt. Edwards was chairman of the Driving Committee, MPFD leadership instructed other committee members to conduct driving tests without Lt. Edwards’s knowledge.
  • In other instances, the MPFD changed or ignored normal department practices when dealing specifically with Lt. Edwards. For example, BC Grandgeorge removed Lt. Edwards from his preferred shift and station.
  • On or about December 22, 2020, Lt. Edwards made a formal complaint of retaliation, including to Village Manager Mike Cassady (“Cassady”) and to Ms. Neu.
  • That same month, Lt. Edwards completed a Workplace Harassment Acknowledgement Form indicating that he was a victim of harassment and that he knew of others who had been victims of harassment and/or discrimination.
  • On or about January 13, 2021, Lt. Edwards met with outside counsel retained by the Village for an extensive interview about his complaint of retaliation.
  • In response, less than two weeks later, the Village issued Lt. Edwards a pretextual written warning, signed by Chief Lambel and DC Dolan, approved by Ms. Neu, accusing him of actions that never occurred at all or for which he was cleared more than ten years prior.
  • The written warning was the first significant discipline Lt. Edwards had received in nearly 25 years as a firefighter.
  • Lt. Edwards reported the retaliatory nature of the discipline.
  • In response, Ms. Neu chose, again, to retaliate further. She advised Lt. Edwards that the investigation into his complaint of retaliation had been closed with a finding that there was no retaliation and then, within days, she approved further retaliatory discipline.
  • Specifically, about one week after closing the investigation into Lt. Edwards’s report of retaliation, the Village suspended him for a day on account of a minor accident when he hit the garage with a fire truck, as others had done but whom were not similarly disciplined for.
  • This suspension was also signed by Chief Lambel and DC Dolan and approved by Ms. Neu.
  • BC Grandgeorge led the Committees that would have initiated both the written warning and the suspension.

Here is a copy of the complaint.

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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