March 4, 2010

City sued for not stopping behavior

MELANIE CREAMER

— By

Staff Writer

Two female firefighters have sued Westbrook's fire department, mayor and city administrator, claiming they failed to address sexual harassment that was documented in complaints to the Maine Human Rights Commission.

Kathy Rogers and Lisa Theberge, who have been on paid administrative leave for more than a year, filed their lawsuit Oct. 21, alleging obscene sexual harassment and discriminatory behavior.

The complaint says several male firefighters, including the deputy chief, lieutenants and captains, engaged in incidents ranging from masturbation and pornography at the station to a sexual affair and sex at a fire department gathering.

It alleges that the deputy chief once approached Theberge and began stroking her hair. He was put on unpaid administrative leave for two weeks and, the lawsuit says, ''allowed to take it a day each week for his convenience.''

Rebecca Webber, an attorney with Linnell, Choate & Webber who represents Rogers and Theberge, said incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination documented by her clients were reported to their superiors and city officials, who failed to act.

''Sexual harassment is alive and well in the city of Westbrook at a level that's shocking to imagine,'' Webber said.

The complaint alleges that some male firefighters groped female victims in the rescue vehicle and bragged about it afterwards. They were put on unpaid administrative leave for two weeks, discipline that Webber called ''disproportionate to their conduct.''

''This is a culture of lawlessness,'' Webber said. ''No one is taking action to stop it.''

The city disciplined seven firefighters last year for their behavior toward the two women. Among them was Lt. Donald Trafford, who was demoted to firefighter but had his rank restored in June by the state's Board of Arbitration and Conciliation. At the same time, the board extended Trafford's suspension from one to two weeks.

Fire Chief Daniel F. Brock declined to comment on the lawsuit. Brock joined the department on Jan. 6, replacing Gary Littlefield, who was put on leave in October 2008, a month before his retirement.

Mayor Bruce Chuluda, who was named in the lawsuit, said, ''The city and the administration are doing all that we can to reach an amicable resolution to the issue for all parties involved.''

In July, the City Council decided unanimously to pay the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence as much as $20,000 to train the city's firefighters. Steve Wessler, executive director of the center, has been working with the city and the department to resolve the issues. He declined to comment on the lawsuit.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant also declined to comment. The city issued a statement saying the allegations of gender-based issues in the fire department have a long history, including multiple investigations, discipline and extensive education and training of the department's personnel.

''The city has been participating in a mediation process but that appears to have ended,'' Bryant said in the statement. ''The city remains committed to taking all reasonable steps to maintain an appropriate workplace environment within its Fire Department.''

In 1994, Rogers filed a sexual discrimination and harassment complaint against the city. The Maine Human Rights Commission ruled that she had grounds to sue, and the case was settled for $7,500.

In 2001, Rogers complained about sexual one-liners and unfounded rumors that she was sleeping with her superiors, and claimed that a male firefighter threatened physical violence.

Again, the commission found in Rogers' favor.

The case settled for $76,000, plus Rogers' attorney's fees. The department was required to hold sexual-harassment training.

In September 2008, the two women asked for and received administrative leave with pay. They have yet to return to work, and their absence has left the city with unbudgeted overtime costs.

Webber said her clients want to return to work and want the harassment and discrimination to stop.

''They just want to work. They don't want to be threatened,'' Webber said.

Staff Writer Melanie Creamer can be contacted at 791-6361 or at:

mcreamer@pressherald.com

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