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Lawsuits & Litigation

Two Female Firefighters File Lawsuits Over Claims of Harassment and Discrimination

— March 10, 2021

Two female firefighters in North Carolina are suing over allegations of discrimination and harassment.

A high-ranking female firefighter in Ashville, North Carolina is filing a lawsuit over claims she was “repeatedly discriminated against because of her sex and fought to keep her job while battling breast cancer.” Another female firefighter, who happened to be the first female chief of a municipal fire department in North Carolina said she “briefly pondered suicide after years of sexual harassment” and filed her own lawsuit as a result.

Workplace Discrimination Awareness graphic
Workplace Discrimination; image courtesy of mohamed_hassan via Pixabay,

The firefighters are Joy Ponder and Susanna Schmitt Williams. They’re only two in a sea of female firefighters who have filed lawsuits recently against their employers over allegations of harassment that led to the end of their careers.

What happened, though? What kind of discrimination did the women face? For starters, Williams was fired in July 2019 and alleges she was “the subject of sexualized rumors and hostility in the form of insubordination by those who reported to her.” In her suit, she added that “Carrboro Town Manager David Andrews overturned both her disciplinary and operational decisions and for the latter, relied instead on the recommendations of men in the department who were lower-ranked and had less experience and education.”

Additionally, Williams claims she filed “two complaints of sexual discrimination against members of the fire department during her tenure as chief but neither was taken seriously.” Eventually, she became so distressed that she considered taking her own life. She said:

“I thought ‘Oh, my God, I could crank up the car and just silently go and just be done with it all because I was that stressed and that depressed over everything that had happened.”

Fortunately, she fought on and eventually won the right to sue from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Ponder resigned from her position as Asheville Fire Department division chief back in September after enduring “years of harassment and gender discrimination from Chief Scott Burnette after she led outside research on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among city firefighters.” She filed her lawsuit in November and amended that suit last month while Williams filed her suit in January.

Ponder began witnessing harassment and discrimination around the time she took a leave of absence to battle breast cancer in 2019. According to her suit, “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.”

She was eventually placed under close supervision and instructed to “stay away from the firefighters under her command.” She was even “moved to an isolated corner office from which she was afraid to even walk to the restroom or copier.” She added:

“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.”

These two suits aren’t the first of their kind. In fact, similar suits have been filed by female firefighters in Texas, Illinois, and Virginia. According to court documents, a female firefighter in Country Club Hills, Illinois actually won an $11 million verdict back in 2018 after she filed a lawsuit claiming her “colleagues openly watched pornography at the station house and broke down a shower door while she was bathing.”

The City of Houston and the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced a $275,000 settlement “after two female firefighters alleged their male co-workers urinated on the walls, floors, and sinks, soiled their bathroom, and wrote race-based slurs on the walls of their work and living space at the fire station.


US female firefighters fight discrimination with lawsuits

Justice Department Settles Sexual Harassment and Retaliation Lawsuit Securing $342,500 for Two Female Firefighters and Changes to the Houston Fire Department’s Training Practices

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