Baltimore County Fire Accused of Failing to Promptly Investigate Harassment Allegations

The US Attorney’s Office has issued a press release indicating that the Justice Department has both filed suit against the Baltimore County Fire Department for sexual harassment, and simultaneously settled the suit through a pre-arranged settlement agreement. The suit filed today alleges the department mishandled an investigation into the sharing of inappropriate photos of female firefighters, thereby creating a hostile work environment.

The factual allegations are somewhat extensive, and are quoted here at length:

  • On June 26, 2017, BCFD Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator Jacob Stuart received a Facebook message from an anonymous alias screen name (“Danial Bosslé”) requesting nude photographs of Employee 1, a female BCFD paramedic who was Stuart’s ex-girlfriend.
  • The solicitor stated that he could provide photographs of six other female BCFD employees (Employees 2-7) in exchange for receipt of a nude photograph of Employee 1. The solicitation referenced an email address to be used to swap nude photographs of Employees 1-7.
  • At the time Stuart received this Facebook message, he was with BCFD Division Chief Ken Hughes responding to an incident, and Stuart immediately showed the Facebook message to Hughes. Division Chief Hughes asked Stuart to send the message to him, which Stuart immediately did.
  • Following his receipt of the Facebook message from Stuart on June 26, 2017, Division Chief Hughes notified BCFD Assistant Chief Jennifer Aubert-Utz about the solicitation. Division Chief Hughes also reached out to the Baltimore County Police Department’s cybercrimes unit. The Police Department advised Division Chief Hughes that it would monitor the situation.
  • BCFD did not take any other action at that time to internally investigate the matter or assess if or how such an incident could be indicative of ongoing sexual harassment in its workplace.
  • BCFD did not reach out to Stuart to discuss the Facebook message for over five months. Specifically, Stuart did not speak to any BCFD management until December 2017 when he was ultimately interviewed by BCFD about the solicitation.
  • On June 27, 2017, volunteer BCFD firefighter Justin Kinsey received a Facebook message from the same anonymous alias screen name (“Danial Bosslé”) that had contacted Stuart the day prior. This solicitation requested nude photographs of Employee 6, Employee 8, a female BCFD employee with whom Kinsey had a prior romantic relationship, and Employee 9, a female BCFD paramedic.
  • The Facebook message informed Kinsey that, should he comply with the request, he would receive nude photographs of Employees 1-7.
  • The Facebook message included a nude photograph that was purportedly of Employee 1 as a “show of good faith.”
  • “Bosslé” then sent Kinsey a nude photograph of Employee 3.
  • Kinsey reported this information to the Police Department.
  • On or around June 30, 2017, the Police Department informed Employee 1, Employee 2, Employee 3, Employee 5 and Employee 6 of the messages and that someone was soliciting or sending nude photographs of them.
  • On August 21, 2017, the Police Department notified BCFD Fire Chief Kyrle Preis III about the Facebook message that Kinsey received. The Police Department notified Preis that the possible source of the message (and thus the real identity of “Danial Bosslé”) was BCFD Fire Specialist Steven Lee. Upon receiving this information, BCFD again did not initiate an investigation into the allegations.
  • On August 24, 2017, the Police Department first advised BCFD to refrain from conducting a concurrent internal investigation to ensure it did not interfere with the Police Department investigation.
  • Until this time, BCFD had failed to investigate the situation in the approximately two months between June 30, 2017, when it learned of the Facebook message sent to Stuart and August 24, 2017, when the Police Department advised it not to conduct a concurrent internal investigation. Thus, BCFD did not have to change its course of conduct following the Police Department’s directive because it had not taken any steps to investigate the matter prior to August 24, 2017.
  • BCFD’s failure to investigate the situation or reinforce its prohibitions against harassment perpetuated the hostile work environment faced by Employees 1-9.
  • [O]n or around August 2017, Employee 2 sent the Police Department a link to a “revenge porn” message board site referred to as “Anon-IB” where photographs of female BCFD employees were posted without their knowledge or consent. These photographs included photographs of Employee 2, Employee 9, Employee 10, and Employee 11 in bikinis.
  • Even after the Police Department notified BCFD on August 21, 2017, of the Facebook message received by Kinsey and that Lee was the possible source of the message, neither BCFD nor the Police Department assured the victims of Lee’s actions that they were not working on the same shift as the suspected culprit and living in close quarters with a male co-worker who was soliciting and sharing revealing photographs of them.
  • On or around September 27, 2017, the Police Department confirmed that Lee was the source of the Facebook messages at issue. Lee confirmed as such when the Police Department interviewed him that day.
  • On October 2, 2017, the Police Department cleared BCFD to take internal action against Lee. BCFD suspended Lee that day pending the results of its internal investigation.
  • On October 3, 2017, over three months after the first solicitation of nude photographs, BCFD finally updated some of the victims on the Police Department’s investigation. BCFD Chief of Staff Jennifer Werry Stewart contacted seven (7) of the eleven (11) victims, Employees 1-7, via telephone. Stewart informed Employees 1-7 that (i) Lee was the individual behind the messages soliciting and distributing the photographs at issue; (ii) BCFD suspended him; (iii) he would not be returning to work soon, if ever; and (iv) BCFD would soon commence its own investigation.
  • On November 8, 2017, Lee submitted his resignation. BCFD accepted his resignation without considering whether to reject it and instead terminate his employment.
  • BCFD did not interview Lee about his solicitation and distribution of inappropriate photographs.
  • Additionally, BCFD failed to follow up with the Police Department as to key details of the police interview with Lee. Accordingly, BCFD failed to determine key specifics such as how Lee obtained the photographs at issue, how many photographs he had in his possession, which BCFD female employees were depicted in the photographs, and whether he still had any nude or inappropriate photographs in his possession (and thus the ability to continue distributing them).
  • On October 6, 2017, four days after BCFD suspended Lee pending the results of its internal investigation, a BCFD Fire Lieutenant received a text message from an unidentified number appearing to distribute photographs of Employee 1—showing that the distribution of photographs may have continued even after the Police Department identified Lee as the culprit behind the initial Facebook messages at issue. Yet, upon information and belief, BCFD did not interview this Fire Lieutenant as part of its internal investigation into Lee’s actions or as part of any other investigation.
  • BCFD also failed to interview Employee 8 as part of its investigation despite the fact that she was a victim of Lee’s actions.
  • On March 26, 2018, BCFD completed its investigation and sent an approximately half- page letter to Employees 1-4, 6-7, and 9-10 notifying them as such. The letter shared only that (i) BCFD completed its investigation; (ii) Lee had resigned; (iii) “no evidence was uncovered to indicate that there were other persons involved with or assisting Lee;” and (iv) no additional violations of law, fair practices policy, or fire department standard operating rules, procedures, and regulations were discovered.
  • In response to Lee’s actions, BCFD conducted a 15-minute online sexual harassment training in August 2018.
  • BCFD did not take any other substantive action in response to these incidents.

The complaint accuses the department of failing to take appropriate remedial actions to address the harassment that the victims were exposed to. Those failures caused the women to be subjected to a hostile work environment.

The settlement, which took the form of a Joint Motion For Entry of Consent Decree, requires the county to:

  • Pay a total of $275,000 to Employees 1 through 11 as referenced in the United States’ Complaint filed in this action;
  • Draft and implement a revised fair practices policy, including an investigative process for complaints of prohibited forms of harassment, discrimination, and retaliation;
  • Provide live, interactive, annual training on sexual harassment to its employees;
  • Conduct a workplace climate survey that gathers information related to sexual harassment in the workplace and BCFD policies, procedures, training, and investigations related to sexual harassment and formulate an action plan to address the issues detailed in the results of the survey.

Here is a link to the US Attorney’s press release. Here is a copy of the complaint:

Here is a copy of the Joint Motion for Entry of Consent Decree

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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