Judge to decide if firefighter discrimination lawsuit advances
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Dec. 13, 2022, 5 a.m. ·
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A Federal District Court judge in Nebraska will decide whether or not a jury will determine the outcome of a discrimination lawsuit against the Omaha Fire Department.
The civil rights lawsuit filed by former Omaha firefighter Jane Crudup described "deeply disparaging treatment" from the fire department. The lawsuit has been blasted by city attorneys who call it "simply a money grab" by a former employee "looking for a windfall from the citizens of this City."
The volleys of accusations and counterclaims are included in briefs filed by opposing parties. The city asked to have the case dismissed before it's heard by a jury, maintaining Crudup presents insufficient evidence to justify the week-long trial. Magistrate Judge Susan Bazis scheduled a trial for March 2023.
After Crudup completed her training, she became the fifth Black female firefighter in the 150-year history of the force, one of only two Black women serving in 2019. Previously a worker at UPS, Crudup hoped service as a first responder would meet her goal "to help as many people as possible."
Two years later, Crudup claimed she had been the subject of a series of incidents of harassment and discrimination at work because she was female and Black.
The most alarming of Crudup's accusations detailed a March 2020 incident when she arrived at Station 41 for work to find her helmet and firefighting coat had been hoisted up the flagpole. In the original complaint filed by her attorney, he described it as "simulating a hanging or public lynching" of Crudup.
In court filings, the attorney for the City of Omaha wrote, "while placing fire gear up a flagpole may at first blush appear to be discriminatory in nature," it was something done occasionally to other firefighters as a form of hazing when they had left their protective gear behind in violation of department guidelines.
In the motion to dismiss the case, the city attorney wrote, "this one incident does not show Plaintiff was discriminated against based on race, as the undisputed facts show that white males also had their fire gear strung up the flagpole."
When informed of the incident in 2020, Mayor Jean Stothert said in an email to the Labor Relations Director, "please investigate this. We cannot allow this to happen." Fire Chief Daniel Olsen said in a deposition it was "in poor taste."
An internal city investigation of the incident determined the hazing was not motivated by racism or sexism but merely "pranks" also pulled on others in the department.
In the most recent court filings, Crudup called that investigation a "sham."
The brief cited additional individual incidents as proof of discrimination and harassment. These include a comment made following a fatal fire call involving an African American child, discussions while watching news programs at the station house, and an encounter during a training exercise.
Crudup left the department in May 2020, claiming she required psychiatric care to deal with traumatic stress and was medically unable to work.
In Omaha's request for summary judgment, the city claimed Crudup received leave and "all the time she needed" and it was willing to work with her to return to the force. In conclusion, the city stated the lawsuit "is simply a money grab for an employee that hasn't had a full-time job in a decade; (who) chooses to be underemployed and is looking for a windfall from the citizens of this City."
According to the most recent court papers, Crudup returned to work with UPS.
Based on the briefs filed and evidence provided in support, Judge Bazis will determine if there are sufficient grounds to justify putting the case before a jury.
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