Lawsuit filed against county, fire department

Published 5:50 pm Friday, August 28, 2009

A former Decatur County firefighter filed a lawsuit Tuesday in U.S. Middle District Court in Albany against Decatur County for sexual discrimination, pay discrimination and violation of her rights under the 14th Amendment.

Cynthia G. Harrell of Bainbridge named the county, the Decatur County Fire and Rescue Department, Decatur County Fire and Rescue Chief Charlie McCann and firefighters Terrell Long and Kenny King as defendants.

Harrell’s attorney, Louis Hatcher of Albany, is requesting a jury trial in the lawsuit with unspecified damages.

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County Adminstrator Tom Patton said Friday it is county policy not to comment on pending litigation and that in fact, county officials had not had time to fully review it.

The 90-page lawsuit states that Harrell was denied employment as a firefighter until another female—Michele Lagace—had sued the county citing discrimination.

“The county and DCF&R reasoned that they could bring in a female to assist their litigation efforts as aforestated, but that they did not have to keep her once the reason for her hire—Lagace’s litigation—no longer existed. As soon as Ms. Lagace’s litigation was resolved, the County and DCF&R would look for grounds upon which to show that women did not belong in the fire services, and more specifically did not and would not belong at DCF&R,” the lawsuit states. “The County and DCF&R determined that their sacrificial victim would be Cindy Harrell.”

The lawsuit claims once Harrell transferred from EMS to the fire department that she was paid less there than she was paid at EMS throughout the course of her employment; that she was paid less than males performing the same job responsibilities who had inferior credentials and paid less than similarly situated males performing the same job responsibilities, the lawsuit claims.

Harassment was also a factor in the lawsuit

Continuing from the first day on the job, Harrell was subject to constant and continuous sexual harassment, being subject to such conduct as lewd and lascivious remarks, requests for sexual favors and unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature by her male counterparts, the lawsuit claims.

In fact, she alleged some of the harassment came from her supervisors, King and Long, and that McCann failed and refused to take action against the two.

The lawsuit says Harrell also complained to the county’s Human Resources Director Marjorie Mayfield and County Administrator Tom Patton, to no avail.

The lawsuit also alleges that County Attorney Brown Moseley participated in false background checks, gave false information to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and admitted he knew the documents were falsified in the Lagace complaint.

An earlier lawsuit

The lawsuit on behalf of Harrell uses the circumstances of former firefighter Michele Lagace, who received $175,000 from Decatur County in March 2006, as part of her lawsuit.

Lagace claimed she was denied employment with the Decatur County Fire and Rescue even though she was more qualified than two firefighters who were hired instead. It was later revealed that those two firefighters admitted to cheating on the firefighting exam and that the then-chief, Billy Griffin, knew it and still denied Lagace a position with the fire department.

The county also lost another lawsuit in relationship to the fire department. Firefighters Guy Yates, Steve Enfinger and the late Jimmy Bellflower successfully claimed they were retaliated against because of their support of Lagace.

On April 14, a jury in the U.S. Middle District of Georgia awarded $250,000 each for Yates, Enfinger and Bellflower’s estate.

Was it policy?

Harrell had been requesting since 2000 a transfer from EMS to DCF&R, but McCann, Griffin, the county, and DCF&R had allegedly refused.

As with Harrell, the county’s and DCF&R’s refusal to hire Lagace was part and parcel of, and a continuation of, the county and DCF&R’s custom, policy and practice of refusing to allow females to work as paid firefighters at DCF&R, the lawsuit claimed.

Indeed, the lawsuit claims that county’s attorney, Moseley, voiced the opinion that women did not belong in jobs such as firefighting.

“Moseley voiced the opinion in his capacity as agent and attorney for the county and DCF&R,” the lawsuit said. “The county and DCF&R have, by the conduct and speech of their elected and appointed officials, adopted and ratified as their own the said comments made by Moseley.”

The lawsuit also said the county utilized its custom, policy and practice of not posting or advertising a written job description or position qualifications for county jobs so that the county and its agencies and agents, including DCF&R, Griffin, and McCann could utilize such “nefarious and discriminatory bases as they might desire” in hiring and promotions. Those bases and practices included, but were not limited to, restricting applicant pools and candidates to the male gender, utilizing any after-the-fact or after-acquired evidence to justify discriminatory practices, and denying jobs and promotions on the basis of gender,” the lawsuit alleges.

Harrell stated she was denied employment in September 2004 and January 2005. Lagace was denied employment in January 2005.

Harrell quit the fire department on Oct. 26, 2007.

Further harassment claimed

Beth Yarbrough, a close friend and work subordinate of Susan Moseley, wife of County Attorney Moseley, harassed Harrell’s child in retaliation for Harrell exercising her statutory right to complain about the sexually harassing behavior, the lawsuit claims.

“Yarbrough’s harassment is directly related to, and a result of Moseley’s involvement in these matters,” the lawsuit said.

“In addition, Palmer Rich, chair of the Decatur County Commission, recently went into Ms. Harrell’s place of business and conducted a juvenile and boisterous rant against Ms. Harrell, designed to harass and humiliate Ms. Harrell, and to cause her to lose her employment,” the lawsuit said. “Rich’s childish and boorish behavior is directly related to, and in retaliation for, Ms. Harrell’s complaints of sexual harassment at DCF&R and her filing of her Charge of Discrimination and Equal Pay Act claims.”