Claims of Sexual Harassment, Discrimination Crop Up, Again, at Dallas Fire-Rescue

Allegations from inside -- and independent studies conducted from outside -- Dallas Fire-Rescue over the past four or so years have painted a disturbing picture of what it's like to be a female employee of DFR and fueled a costly, ongoing lawsuit in 2009. But as of last week, the city can start tucking away more cash for counsel, because two more women have brought claims against DFR and the city of Dallas.

First, it was DFR executive officer Leanne Siri, whose claims of harassment, including being touched inappropriately, called a "bitch" and sent sexually explicit e-mails, were largely determined to be "uncorroborated" by a (surprise!) city-contracted firm. Last Wednesday, two more female fire employees -- "on behalf of those similarly situated" -- filed suit against the department and city officials.

Brian Calhoun, who's representing Hill and Lopez, tells Unfair Park they filed the suit last week after getting right-to-sue go-aheads for both women in mid-summer. Calhoun says there is a clear culture of discrimination against women at DFS: "That is what we believe. That is what we have said in the lawsuit."

According to court documents, which follow, Cheryl Hill and Sherrie Lopez allege that they have been discriminated and retaliated against because of their gender (and in Lopez's case, her race as well). These are not isolated incidents, says the Hill-Lopez suit, but "a department-wide unconstitutional practice, policy and custom in deliberate indifference to the rights of female employees." The allegations are in keeping with a 2007 report by Berkshire Consultants that found "attitudes ranging from antipathy to hostility with regard to female employees are barely disguised in some areas (especially fire suppression.)"

The Hill-Lopez suit compiles a number of complaints from female DFR employees, including references to Leanne Siri's complaints against DFR Chief Eddie Burns: "Chief Burns publicly telling the DFR's highest-ranking female employee, 'the problem is you're a woman' and that she should be seen in not heard in meetings."

Additionally, Cheryl Hill claims to have found semen in her coffee cup at work and on a photo of her daughter on her desk -- forensics later confirmed the substance was seminal fluid. The suit says DFR's reaction to Hill's complaints about the semen incident was "hostile, abusive and offensive" and forced her to retire early for fear of continued retaliation and a hostile work environment.

For Lopez's part, she alleges discrimination began in 1995 during her first assignment, when a captain "refused to work with a female firefighter" and got Lopez immediately relocated. Among other allegations of damage to her car and property, Lopez also complains that a needle placed in her bed at the station intended to "impale" Lopez was instead grazed by her 5-year-old daughter and discovered. When Lopez reported the incident, court documents claim, her assignments and pay were decreased -- in addition, Lopez reports finding urine on the rug near her area in the fire station. Lopez also claims racial discrimination: When she was denied a transfer, court documents say, she was told, "Well, you're not the right color."

We've got calls into Lopez and Hill's lawyers, and will update accordingly.
Cheryl Hill and Sherrie Lopez v. Dallas


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