Department Ignored Allegations of Bias by Top Female Officials, Punished Them for Coming Forward
The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Virginia (ACLU-VA) filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charges against the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) for sex discrimination and retaliation on behalf of Battalion Chiefs Kathleen Stanley and Cheri Zosh. The ACLU’s EEOC charges argue the FRD violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in employment and retaliation against those who oppose such conduct.
“The FRD is charged with serving the public, but instead it’s punishing two of its very best,” said Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “At the highest levels, the FRD has sent the message that it doesn’t want to hear about the well-being of its female members. If the highest-achieving women in the FRD are hung out to dry when they raise concerns, what kind of message does that send to the rest of the women of Fairfax?”
“No woman should have to accept as a condition of public service being subjected to sexual harassment, bullying and discrimination. All of our first responders deserve workplaces that are fully inclusive and treat all employees with equal dignity and respect. If this is the kind of behavior battalion chiefs have to put up with, what kind of conduct is being experienced by rank and file firefighters? We need to keep saying, time’s up for sexual harassment in the workplace, regardless of who you are or where you work,”added Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of ACLU-VA.
According to the charges, the FRD retaliated against Stanley and Zosh - the highest-ranking active female members of the department, with more than 50 years of service to the community between them - for speaking out against FRD’s systemic discrimination against female firefighters, including pervasive sexual harassment. Stanley alleges that she was subjected to ongoing retaliation during her tenure as Women’s Program Officer, which escalated after she resigned the post in protest on January 28. Zosh claims a pattern of abuse stemmed from her advocacy on behalf of firefighter Magaly Hernandez, whose sexual harassment claims against the FRD were settled in April just prior to trial.
Stanley, who spent 27 years with the department and from 2011 to 2016 and was detailed as a counter-terrorism expert to the federal government, was appointed Women’s Program Officer in 2016. She was awarded the role after the suicide of FRD firefighter Nicole Mittendorff triggered scrutiny of the FRD’s tolerance of sexual harassment and bullying. Stanley previously had settled a class action sex discrimination complaint against the FRD that alleged multiple biased practices. As Women’s Program Officer, Stanley spoke out about ongoing harassment and other forms of discrimination in the department, related to promotions, inadequate firehouse conditions for women and unequal access to training. Her resignation letter was leaked to the press, resulting in scathing Facebook abuse – messages that then were “liked” by FRD leadership – and culminating in County leadership presenting Stanley with three possible demotions and an order to “choose” one within a week. The County additionally conducted a cursory internal investigation of the allegations in Stanley’s letter.
“I’ve devoted my career to the FRD, and want to leave it better for women than I found it 27 years ago,” said Stanley. “The department appointed me to a position where I was supposed to be a voice for the female members. Now that they’ve tried to silence me, I feel an obligation to keep speaking out and demand that these behaviors stop.”
Zosh filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that FRD retaliated against her for reporting a captain in Zosh’s command, Jon Bruley, after he harassed and stalked firefighter Hernandez – and then failed to act when Bruley began harassing and stalking Zosh, as well. Her lawsuit was dismissed, as was Hernandez’s, but the latter decision was appealed and recently reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which found Bruley’s harassment sufficiently “hostile and abusive” – and the FRD’s response to it sufficiently “inadequate” – to warrant a trial. The case was settled soon thereafter. Since bringing her case, Zosh has been denied a promotion, scrutinized, repeatedly threatened with unfounded discipline, and denied necessary staffing in her units, among other retaliation. She also has witnessed her wife – a more junior firefighter – face similar blowback.
“I am proud of my nearly 25 years of service with the FRD, and the culture has to change,” said Zosh. “At this historic moment of women speaking up around the country, a real turning point is possible. We have the opportunity to make things better for the younger generation of firefighters.”
The FRD is currently searching for a new Fire Chief; Richard Bowers announced his retirement following the release of Stanley’s letter and left the position late last month. Many of the same leaders who presided over the department’s tenure of scandals identified by Stanley and Zosh, and that resulted in five sex discrimination lawsuits against FRD in the past ten years, are still in positions of power.
The FRD nominally is hosting the iWomen Conference, an annual gathering of female fire and emergency management professionals from around the world, taking place from May 24 -26. Stanley is its chief organizer, but among her allegations is that FRD leadership has undermined her efforts to organize the event, such as by denying her a working computer since she submitted her letter of resignation as Women’s Program Officer, as well as failing to publicize the conference or facilitate attendance by FRD members, in contrast to its support of similar events.