DOJ sues Houston Fire Department over sex discrimination

Jane Draycott speaking in 2010.

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This lawsuit against the Houston Fire Department is somewhat of a surprise. Going after a fire department over sexual discrimination is not what I expected, policy wise, from the current Department of Justice. It’s the same DOJ that announced a year ago it was pulling back from the previous administration’s history of filing civil rights lawsuits against police departments around the country. But yesterday (Wednesday), DOJ announced a new Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative (SHWI) saying that the Houston Fire Department lawsuit is its first enforcement action.

It’s also a surprise because the well-covered incidents around Station 54 involving Jane Draycott and Paul Keyes are from almost a decade ago and had long ago faded from the news. In its statement, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association claims the firefighters and fire officers accused of targeting the women were exonerated by city investigations:

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association has urged the City of Houston and other authorities to release findings of investigations of the 2009 allegations related to Station 54. Today’s federal lawsuit provides another opportunity to publicly exonerate the more than 40 firefighters that were polygraphed, gave sworn statements or handwriting samples in, or cooperated with investigations of HFD. We continue to believe the evidence – all of it – should be released immediately. “From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately. We believe in – and have fought for – better working conditions for all Houston firefighters. To that end, dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years. Today, as then, the firefighters exonerated in the investigation deserve to be recognized as such. Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains. “The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty. Anything short of public acknowledgement of the exonerated firefighters will only foster public misunderstanding of Houston firefighters. Houston firefighters deserve due process and a fair hearing of the facts. We hope this federal case finally sets the record straight on what actually happened at Station 54.

Megan Kennedy, KPRC-TV:

The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas against the city of Houston, accusing the Houston Fire Department of discrimination against two female firefighters on the basis of sex.

The lawsuit alleges that the two women, identified as Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes, were subjected to a hostile work environment — which included men urinating on walls, floors and the sinks of the women’s bathroom and dormitory, according to the DOJ. It also alleges that cold water was disconnected to scald the women while they were showering, and deactivating the female dormitory’s announcement speakers so the women could not respond to emergency calls.

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Emma Platoff, Texas Tribune:

When women filed complaints with management, the fire department “did not take meaningful steps to stop the discrimination” and one woman was forced into early retirement, the lawsuit alleges.

“No employee should be subjected to a hostile work environment based on their sex,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. “We will aggressively protect employees who are victims of sex discrimination and retaliation and pursue employers who violate the law.”

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Keri Blakinger & St. John Barned-Smith, The Houstson Chronicle:

When Draycott returned to work in early 2010 following her complaints, she alleged, HFD retaliated against her by letting her coworkers publicly disparage her.

At one point, she filed suit against the department, detailing the summer 2009 graffiti incident and alleging sex discrimination dating back to 2000. But in mid-2010 she dropped the claim.

Draycott was ultimately forced into early retirement due to “intolerable” working conditions, according to the Justice Department.

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