City council on Wednesday voted to settle a federal discrimination lawsuit by a female Houston firefighter who alleged she was tormented by male colleagues at their Bush Airport station, ending a long-running dispute that dates back to 2009 and clouded the fire department in scandal.
City council unanimously approved a $275,000 payment to the now-former firefighter, Ena Jane Draycott, and her attorney. It also agreed to a consent decree that lays out training remedies the city must implement to ensure other workers do not face similar discrimination.
In February 2018, the federal government sued the city on behalf of Draycott and another firefighter, Paula Keyes. The lawsuit alleged the fire department violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination based on race and gender, among other factors.
The city previously approved a $67,500 settlement for Keyes in April. Keyes still works for the department. Draycott retired in 2011.
“I know Jane is really delighted to hear they approved it,” said Joseph Ahmad, Draycott’s attorney. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
The lawsuit alleged that male colleagues tormented the women at Station 54, turning off the cold water in showers to scald them, disconnecting speakers to prevent them from responding to calls, and urinating on the women’s bathroom walls and sinks.
Ahmad said commanders failed to address the situation when the women reported the abuse, which occurred in 2009. The lawsuit also alleged the women faced retaliation for reporting it. As an example, the suit states that Draycott kept a photo in her locker of her late daughter, who died in a car accident. After she reported the abuse, someone wrote “dead” on the picture and “die” on a picture of Draycott.
No firefighters have faced disciplinary action for the misconduct described in the lawsuit, which Mayor Sylvester Turner and some council members said Wednesday is troubling. Turner, reading a note from his legal department, said no firefighters were identified as culprits.
“It says no specific fireman was identified as the wrongdoer, so no discipline happened,” Turner said. “And that’s unfortunate.”
Ahmad said the consent decree means the city must take steps to remedy its troubled handling of the matter.
Those efforts include developing and providing training for firefighters in the Aircraft Rescue Firefighting Division, where Draycott and Keyes worked. The training must explain the protections under the Civil Rights Act and lay out the city’s process for accepting and investigating complaints. The city has to submit that training program to the federal government within 60 days for approval.
“There’s monetary relief for Jane, which she’s very happy about, but what I think she’s more happy about is” the decree order, which will result in changes, Ahmad said.
In the lawsuit, city attorneys denied that Draycott was subjected to a hostile work environment or retaliation. They were unsuccessful in asking a federal judge to dismiss the suit. Later, the parties reached the settlement.
At City Hall, however, city council members were more candid in acknowledging and condemning the behavior described in the lawsuit. They pledged to make changes to ensure it does not happen again.
“Some of the behavior I remember was despicable,” Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said. “After hearing this and reading back into it, looking at some of the notes, it was embarrassing how they treated some of these ladies.”
Councilmember Robert Gallegos said “these women did not deserve that.”
Turner said the behavior described in the suit was “unacceptable then, and it’s unacceptable now.” The mayor said he has asked the legal department to explore additional policies to explicitly forbid discrimination.
“Which means that if you go contrary to those city policies, I don’t have to wait on the department director to move on you. As mayor of Houston, I will move on you,” Turner said. “If you don’t draw very clear lines and make it very clear, there will be employees or departments who assume they are operating on their own. And that is not the case. That culture, that type of thinking, must change.”
Councilmember Abbie Kamin said the state needs to address the statute of limitations it sets for indefinite suspensions in police and fire agencies. Those complaints must be brought within 180 days of the act itself, not when the act is discovered or brought to officials’ attention.
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