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City of Asheville, North Carolina Settles Discrimination Lawsuit with Former Fire Fighter

— April 14, 2022

The city of Asheville, North Carolina recently agreed to settle a gender discrimination lawsuit with a former employee.

Officials in Asheville, North Carolina recently agreed to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit with a former female firefighter. In the suit, the former firefighter, Joy Ponder claimed she encountered a “hostile work environment in which the fire chief and others inflicted emotional distress.”

Fire Truck
Fire Truck; image courtesy of PublicDomainPictures via Pixabay,

Ponder was represented by John Hunter. According to him, Ponder will receive about $155,000 in compensatory damages. In exchange, Ponder agreed to voluntarily dismiss her claim in U.S. District Court. When commenting on the matter, Ponder said:

“I believe and hope that this settlement makes a statement that women will not just stand and be silent when treated unjustly…The settlement allows me to move forward with my life. I am eager to put this experience behind me and look forward to continuing my work for firefighters dealing with PTSD, as well as other future positive endeavors.”

He also noted that it’s rare for gender discrimination cases to “survive summary judgment.” He added: “The city didn’t come forward with settlement offers until that happened.” Back in March, a federal judge ruled that Ponder’s case could proceed “on a claim of disparate treatment.” Prior to the suit, Ponder was one of the highest-ranking women firefighters in the department.

Before the March ruling, attorneys for the city and Fire Chief Scott Burnette sought a pre-trial summary judgment by having Ponder’s allegations thrown out. While Judge Martin Reidinger dismissed the allegations against Burnette, he noted the city could be held liable for any discriminatory actions towards Ponder. 

When commenting on the recent settlement agreement Burnette noted he is glad the claims against him were dismissed and said:

“This is the fifth, and now thankfully final, time that her unfair allegations have been reviewed and dismissed…I am happy that this is finally behind us and that we can move on.”

What happened, though? What prompted Ponder to file the lawsuit back in September 2020? According to the suit, Ponder resigned from her position as the Asheville Fire Department division chief after facing years of “harassment and gender discrimination from Burnette after she led outside research on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among city firefighters.” On top of that, Ponder “took a leave of absence in early 2019 because of breast cancer…when she returned at the end of the year, Burnette and the deputy chief designed and executed an effective demotion and campaign to display her as a poor performer and divisive employee.”

From there, she was allegedly instructed to “stay away from the firefighters under her command and moved to an isolated corner office from which she said she was afraid to even walk to the restroom or copier.” When asked about her treatment in a 2021 interview, Ponder said:

“The continued harassment and abrupt disruption of my schedule and life that I had maintained successfully for many years led to a deterioration in my physical and mental health, and I was forced to leave.”


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