While working as an administrative assistant to the fire chief of a mid-sized, northern Massachusetts community, a woman has filed a sexual harassment lawsuit, claiming her treatment left her feeling embarrassed and humiliated.
When she complained, she says, she was threatened with termination.
Our Boston sexual harassment attorneys firmly believe that every worker has the right to an environment free from unwanted sexual remarks, advances or aggression.
A misconception persists in certain workplaces that because they have historically been dominated by men, that sexually suggestive or demeaning remarks are acceptable. This kind of attitude is often what makes it so tough for victims of sexual harassment to come forward. In many cases, filing a complaint is a true act of strength and bravery. Not only are those individuals standing up to claim justice for what they endured, they are demanding better treatment for future workers.
In this case, Debruyckere v. Peabody et al., the complaint is based on a single incident. According to court records, it was about 6 p.m. on a Thursday when the assistant entered the office of the deputy chief to deliver attendance records.
Once there, the deputy chief, surrounded by a group of all-male employees, approached her with an envelope in his hand. He made a comment to the effect of, “We’re all adults here, aren’t we?”
He and the others in the room began to laugh and stare at her as the assistance stammered that yes, it was true they were all adults. But she was the only woman in the room. She would later say at this point, she felt extremely uncomfortable and threatened.
Then in front of all who were present, the deputy chief began pulling out the contents of the envelope, which contained various sex toys and related supplies. He then shoved the contents back into the envelope and told her that the items had been found in the locker of a recently retired employee. He asked that the assistant place the envelope on the desk of the chief.
All of the men in the room continued to laugh. She quickly took the envelope and rushed out of the room. When she returned to her office, a female employee noticed the assistant looked pale and seemed distraught. She asked what was wrong. The assistant told her. The other female employee asked to see the envelope. Inside, she discovered several sex toys, a sex tape, gel and a book.
From there, the assistant took the envelope and put it on the chief’s desk, as the deputy chief had asked.
About 10 minutes later, a lieutenant came into her office and demanded the envelope be returned to the deputy chief, as he had had a “change of heart.”
The assistant retrieved the envelope from the chief’s desk and handed it to the lieutenant, who told the women, “We’re all going to forget about this,” to which the other female employee replied, “No, we aren’t.”
The lieutenant then put the contents of the envelope in a plastic bag and threw it in a nearby dumpster.
The chief was out of the office the next day. A former firefighter, now private investigator, called to ask for confirmation of what had occurred. She confirmed it to him.
The following Monday, the assistant told the chief she needed to speak with him. She told him what happened and asked what he planned to do about it. Rather than promise to address the inappropriate behavior, the chief threatened to fire her for speaking to a former firefighter about what had happened. He also threatened to discipline the other female employee.
He did nothing to discipline the deputy chief, though he did say both he and the lieutenant would be offering her an apology.
Faced with a lawsuit, the city contends that it acted appropriately and it intended to fight the claim of sexual harassment.
While this case focuses on a single incident, most claims involve numerous violations. Generally, sexual harassment claims filed on the basis of a single act involve either a quid pro quo threat or a particularly egregious episode. This may indeed fall into the latter category. (Quid pro quo sexual harassment is the demand for sexual favors in exchange for avoiding negative employment consequences.)
If you have questions about whether your situation qualifies as sexual harassment, we are here to help.
The Brown Law Firm, LLC, has offices in Belmont and Boston. For a free and confidential consultation, call 617-489-0817 or contact us online.
Woman claims she was harassed, Sept. 14, 2013, By Terri Ogan, The Boston Globe
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