Firefighter Discrimination Case Heard by U.S. Appeals Court

Firefighter discrimination case is heard by U.S. appeals court ST. LOUIS (AP) - In a case that could have national implications, lawyers pressed a federal appellate court Thursday to determine if Kansas City discriminated against female firefighters who claimed they did not have proper protective gear and restroom facilities.

Two female firefighters, battalion chief Kathleen Kline and former battalion chief Anne Wedow, also said they faced retaliation for complaining about what they viewed as discrimination.

Not so, attorney Douglas McMillan argued for Kansas City in front of a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He said previous judgments favoring the women should be reversed and judgments entered in favor of the city.

A federal jury awarded Wedow $285,000 in 2002 after she sued the department for failing to provide proper changing areas, showers and protective clothing that fit. The year before, Kline won a $50,000 verdict on similar issues.

Central to the case is whether the women had inadequate facilities and gear, and if that was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination.

``These issues are national issues,'' said Maureen McFadden following the hearing. She is a spokeswoman for Legal Momentum, a New York-based advocacy organization working for women's legal rights and whose lawyers are the firefighters' co-counsel on the case. She said the ruling could potentially result in changes to fire departments around the country.

But McMillan told the judges the women didn't file their discrimination claims quickly enough to legally move forward, that there was no evidence male employees didn't have the same problems with their gear, and that the women didn't exhaust administrative measures to resolve their concerns.

``Each firefighter has his or her own gear, and each gets it from the store after trying it on, and saying , 'OK, it fits,''' McMillan said.

He said the claims of retaliation didn't hold up. ``There was no loss in title, salary or benefits,'' McMillan said.

Karen Howard, an attorney for the women, said they were told protective gear could not be altered to fit them better because it would void warranties. She said as early as 1993, female firefighters learned they could get gender-specific gear, but the department failed to contact the vendor to find out more about it.

Kline testified at an earlier trial that improperly fitting gear was more than a nuisance, it impeded her work and created harmful gaps from protection. ``She testified that steam would literally cook her skin,'' Howard said.

Kline also is seeking equitable relief, asking the court to order equal facilities for women. A lower court denied that in 2003, and Kline was also appealing that ruling Thursday. Wedow, who has retired, was not part of that legal action.

Howard said when the women were not assigned to certain shift jobs, they couldn't learn related duties, holding back their careers.

She said the women did not file their case too late, because the violations continued over time and could be considered new each time.

``The violations occurred every time they put on their gear and were not protected. The violations occurred when they'd return from a fire and couldn't take a shower,'' Howard said.

The women had access to bathrooms, and plans for several future fire stations in the city do call for separate facilities for men and women, McMillan said.