A Lincoln firefighter has sued the city, alleging she was treated differently because she's a woman and that she faced a hostile work environment after she reported it.
Amanda Benson's lawsuit, filed in Lancaster County District Court, is the latest of three suits filed by Lincoln Fire and Rescue employees alleging they faced retaliation for reporting harassment of female firefighters.
Capts. Brian Giles and Troy Hurd filed the other two suits, saying they were passed up for promotions and faced other disciplinary actions as a result of the complaints.
In the latest lawsuit, Gretna attorney Kelly K. Brandon said it started in October 2014, when Capt. Shawn Mahler got visibly upset after learning that Benson would be replacing a male firefighter at Station 8, at 17th and Van Dorn streets.
Brandon said a civilian, who was at the station for a ride-along, witnessed a confrontation between Mahler and two others and later told Benson.
The attorney said Mahler refused to speak to Benson when she began her assignment at the station three days later and didn't allow her to rotate onto the fire truck, where she would have had more time for training.
That November, then-Battalion Chief Jeanne Pashalek filed a formal complaint against Mahler because of the confrontation. But Benson asked to stop the investigation, believing the situation might get worse if she pursued it, Brandon said.
She said when Benson asked Mahler in December why he wasn't including her in the truck rotation like the male firefighters, he told her she should stick with medical specialties because "typically women are less mechanically-minded."
According to the attorney, Mahler told Benson he would observe her for 18 months to three years, then decide if she was competent enough to be on his truck. He didn't do the same for male firefighters, she said.
Benson complained to Giles, the other captain at the station, who complained to Battalion Chief Eric Jones, who said he would rectify the situation. But he eventually took Mahler out for a beer and apologized to Mahler, Brandon said.
By January 2016, Interim Fire Chief Tim Linke found there was a "personality conflict" between Mahler and Benson, but nothing to support a finding of wrongdoing by Mahler.
In a July 28, 2016, letter to Benson, Mayor Chris Beutler said the city's law department didn't see grounds for discrimination or retaliation. But he told her she could meet with the city's human resources director and Public Safety Director Tom Casady to discuss how to improve fire house interactions.
Benson ultimately transferred to another station and no longer works directly with Mahler.
In the lawsuit, Benson's attorney is asking a judge to issue an injunction stopping the city and its employees from "engaging in any employment practice which discriminates on the basis of sex and retaliation."
She is seeking back pay, front pay and damages, plus punitive damages for "its malicious and reckless conduct." The suit also asks the city be ordered to expunge all negative reports or evaluations from Benson's personnel file.
The lawsuit names the city of Lincoln, Beutler, Casady, Human Resources Director Doug McDaniel, Linke, Jones, retired Battalion Chief Leo Benes and Capts. Darren Merryman and Mahler.
Tuesday, City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the city hadn't yet been served with the lawsuit, but the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission did a complete investigation in Benson's case and concluded no reasonable cause that discrimination or retaliation had occurred.
"She is still a firefighter with the city and, as far as I know, she's still doing a good job," he said.
He called Lincoln Fire and Rescue one of the best departments around.
Kirkpatrick said he doesn't think it's surprising that tensions sometimes come up in the fire department, given that it's stressful work and employees spend long hours together.
But they do the best they can, he said.
"I feel good about the quality of the workforce we have," Kirkpatrick said.