Sexual Harassment Rulings Are Changing Life In The Firehouse

Last year's major U.S. Supreme Court sexual harassment decisions (see Fire Law, December 1998) are having a real-world impact. They are changing life in firehouses and other job sites across the country. Last June, the Supreme Court set a new standard...


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Lawyers say they have not seen a measurable increase in harassment litigation since last June's decisions, but some trends are beginning to emerge. Cases will focus on whether an employer has a solid affirmative defense. Matters such as the scope of a department's policy and its implementation will be crucial. Already, though, there have been several court rulings interpreting last June's decisions that should be of interest to the fire service.

In Williamson v. The City of Houston (148 F.3d 462), a Houston police officer repeatedly complained to her sergeant that a male co-worker was sexually harassing her. After she filed a complaint, the sergeant retaliated by taunting her and transferring her to a less desirable unit for lower pay. The court rejected the city's argument that it did not have proper notice of its responsibilities. It said the Supreme Court rulings provided adequate notice to the department, and the officer had followed the City's harassment complaint policy. Like the Houston Police Department, fire departments are on notice that their policies and practices must be consistent with the new standards. Fire departments will be liable for damages resulting from sexual harassment.

In two other decisions, lower federal courts have applied these principles to cases involving racial harassment. It is reasonable to expect that fire departments will be held accountable for harassment of all legally protected classes, such as racial minorities and older workers or volunteers.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.