US Sues Houston Under New Sexual Harassment Initiative (1)

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By Patrick Dorrian

The city of Houston subjected two female firefighters to a sexually hostile work environment and forced one of them to quit when she complained, the U.S. government alleges in a new lawsuit.

The Department of Justice’s Feb. 28 federal court complaint on behalf of Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes is the first lawsuit filed by the government under a new initiative also announced Feb. 28 to combat sexual and other sex-based harassment directed at public-sector workers. The case may be viewed as a warning shot to other public-sector employers that if they haven’t done enough to rid their workplaces of sex-based misconduct, they better do so before federal authorities come calling.

The alleged harassment of Draycott and Keyes occurred at the Houston Fire Department’s Station 54, which is located at Bush International Airport, according to the complaint. The women were the only two female firefighters permanently assigned to the station at the time, but several other women had faced and complained before about the misconduct of male firefighters at the station, the DOJ alleges.

The harassment Draycott and Keyes faced included men misusing the women’s dormitory and bathroom at Station 54 by leaving the toilet seat up, urinating on the outside of the toilet, spitting tobacco juice in the women’s desk drawers, and removing the mattress Draycott used during her 24-hour shifts and replacing it with an older, worn-out one, the lawsuit says.

The women complained repeatedly to superiors, but their requests for help were met with laughter and resulted in further harassment, including having the cold water turned off in the women’s shower and the cables of the television in the women’s dorm removed, the DOJ says. Draycott later filed an official written complaint. Although that spurred an inspector general’s investigation, it, too, brought on further harassment, including sex- and race-based slurs being scrawled throughout the women’s dorm in permanent marker, according to the lawsuit.

The DOJ’s Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative is the second launched by the department. It follows an October 2017 initiative targeting sexual harassment in housing.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said in a Feb. 28 statement announcing the new initiative and lawsuit. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation. The Civil Rights Division—under the newly created Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative—will continue to work vigorously to protect employees from these workplace abuses.”

In response to a request for comment, the city directed Bloomberg Law to a statement released March 1 by the mayor’s office. The statement says: “The DOJ lawsuit stems from alleged events, some of which took place 10 years ago, and about which the federal government has long been aware. After a thorough investigation, the City could not substantiate the claims of the plaintiffs when they were made; nor has the City been able to resolve the claims asserted on a mutually agreeable basis. Accordingly, the City will defend itself. The City does not tolerate any form of discrimination or harassment.”

The case is United States v. City of Houston, S.D. Tex., No. 4:18-cv-00644, complaint filed 2/28/18.

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