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Published: 7/19/2008

Toledo firefighters' gender bias lawsuit OK'd for trial

BY GABE NELSON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

With a decision yesterday by the Ohio 6th District Court of Appeals, three female employees accusing the Toledo Fire Department of gender discrimination can take their case to trial.

Judge Linda Jennings of Lucas County Common Pleas Court dismissed the case in October, saying the women failed to present evidence that they had suffered discrimination because of their gender.

The appeals court reversed that decision, ordering the court to proceed with the case.

Each plaintiff is asking for damages and compensation in excess of $250,000.

Terry Lodge, a Toledo attorney representing the plaintiffs, hailed the appeals court's decision.

"We're very pleased," Mr. Lodge said.

"There's a distinct glass ceiling in the fire division, and there are a lot of very negative opinions of women as firefighters."

Toledo Fire Chief Mike Wolever said he didn't know enough about the decision to comment.

Toledo Law Director John Madigan, representing the department in the case, did not return calls seeking comment.

Capt. Carla Stachura and firefighters Judi Imhoff and Geraldine McCalland filed the suit in November, 2005, accusing the city and three fire department officials of gender discrimination and creating a hostile work environment for women.

All three claimed department officials failed to take action after co-workers subjected them to verbal abuse and sexually demeaning language.

The three officials named in the suit - former Chief Mike Bell and former Deputy Chiefs John Coleman and Robert Metzger - all since have left the fire department.

Captain Stachura, first appointed to the fire department in 1993, claimed in the lawsuit that her superiors withheld the privileges and office space given to men of her rank and seniority.

Ms. McCalland, who joined the department in 1984, claimed that officials denied her an appointment to the post of public education officer, instead offering the position to a less-qualified male employee. She filed a complaint with the city and ultimately received the post.

When Judge Jennings dismissed the discrimination case last year, she said the women failed to show they had experienced discrimination rather than simply unkind treatment.

"It appears that [Captain Stachura, Ms. Imhoff, and Ms. McCalland] presume that because they are women anything negative that happened to them in the workplace constituted gender discrimination," Judge Jennings said in her ruling.

The appeals court's decision, written by Judge Arlene Singer, returned the case to Judge Jennings, saying the judge couldn't dismiss the case because plaintiffs raised a question of fact fit to be heard by a judge or jury.

Mr. Lodge said the plaintiffs hope to add wrongful termination to the list of charges on the suit.

The three plaintiffs were fired in February, 2007, after fire officials judged them guilty on administrative charges of secretly recording workplace conversations. The plaintiffs gave the recordings to legal counsel with the intention of using them as evidence in the lawsuit.

It is legal in Ohio to record conversations without the other party's permission, but fire officials said the practice violated the department's code of conduct.

In response to the lawsuit, the department earlier this year made a rule explicitly banning the recording of conversations without consent, Chief Wolever said.

The plaintiffs argue they were terminated as retaliation for filing the discrimination suit, but it's up to Judge Jennings to decide whether to allow the plaintiffs to add those charges to their suit.

The department ultimately reinstated the trio after they appealed through the firefighters' union.

Though the plaintiffs remain employed by the fire department, all three are working in light duty, Chief Wolever said. He said two of them sustained injuries in the line of duty and one had an injury when she returned to work.

Contact Gabe Nelson at:

gnelson@theblade.com

or 419-724-6076.



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