HCB Attorneys Win Summary Judgment in Federal Employment Discrimination Suit Against Fire Chief and Municipality

June 2, 2022

Plaintiff was a veteran firefighter in a small city in central Illinois with the rank of lieutenant. The suit arose from an incident where she and several other firefighters were responding to a fire and she was grabbed, shoved into a wall, and screamed at by a male lieutenant who had lost his temper because of perceived disobedience to his on-scene orders. Critically, she and the male lieutenant had been close friends prior to the incident and every witness said they were “shocked” or “surprised” at the male lieutenant’s actions.

After the incident, the fire chief spoke to both parties and ordered an investigation. The male lieutenant was suspended for three days and sent to anger management. The female lieutenant continued working for several weeks, but then stopped, claiming she was unable to work due to emotional and mental trauma from the incident. She briefly returned to work several months later on “light duty,” but then stopped again due to alleged PTSD and psychological stress from the incident. The female lieutenant then filed for a disability pension and filed a federal lawsuit against the city, the fire chief, and the male lieutenant.

She alleged more than a dozen counts under federal and state law. But all her federal claims required evidence from which a jury could conclude that anyone’s actions towards her were based on her gender. She had none.

For one thing, while the male lieutenant did have a history of anger issues, there was no evidence that his temper was disproportionally targeted at women. Nor was there evidence that his actions on scene were motivated by her gender, or that the relatively light discipline handed down by the fire chief was motivated by gender. The court underscored the difference between employer actions that are arguably unfair, and those that are based on membership in a protected class. The court rejected all her “return to work” claims as belied by the record. For example, while plaintiff alleged that she was forced to use her own leave time while off work, she admitted in her deposition that the time was credited back once her workers’ compensation claim was approved. Similarly, while she alleged that the fire chief made her return to work contrary to medical advice, the record showed that every doctor who examined her, including one of her own choosing, opined that she could return to work on light duty.

Thus, U.S. District Judge Colin S. Bruce granted summary judgment on the federal claims and relinquished jurisdiction over the state law claims. Hervas, Condon, & Bersani attorneys Michael Condon and David Mathues represented the city and the fire chief (the male lieutenant had separate counsel for conflicts reasons).

Giese v. Boyce, et al.

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