A Lincoln Fire and Rescue captain has sued the city and the fire department's top brass alleging they retaliated against him for reporting harassment of recruits in 2011 and that he continues to get passed up for promotions because of it.
Lincoln's city attorney said Monday the department has been taking steps for more than a year to address issues brought out in an internal investigation into Capt. Troy Hurd's allegations, including efforts to make discipline more consistent and to train supervisors on what retaliation is and how to avoid it.
In the lawsuit filed Friday in U.S. District Court, Hurd alleges the retaliation continued as recently as Nov. 30, when he was passed up for a promotion to battalion chief.
He said the retaliation is rooted in a conversation he overheard in September 2011, when a fellow trainer cursed at a Kurdish, female firefighter recruit from Iraq and learning that another of the trainers asked her if she needed "a f-ing interpreter."
Hurd, who has been with the fire department since Nov. 1, 2000, believed the two were harassing the recruit based on her gender and national origin and told his supervisor, Roger Bonin, the chief of training.
In the complaint, Gretna attorney Kelly Brandon said Bonin told Battalion Chief Leo Benes, who removed Hurd from his training position.
A month later, Brandon said, a male recruit in the class told Hurd things had gotten worse and asked him to do something.
Hurd went back to Bonin, who arranged a meeting with Assistant Fire Chief Pat Borer and retired Deputy Chief Rich Furasek.
Brandon said Hurd was put in charge of the recruit class for two weeks in November 2011, until the trainer he had complained about falsely accused him of sending obscene texts to his wife.
In January 2012, the Iraqi recruit was fired. She went on to become a Lincoln police officer.
That same month, Hurd had a meeting with Bonin and now-retired Battalion Chief Jeanne Pashalek during which he said he had been subject to retaliation for making the earlier report. That led to another meeting, during which Pashalek told Hurd she had found no basis for his claims.
After an hour and a half, Hurd said he was done with the meeting, apologized to everyone there and was told to leave, Brandon said in the suit.
Hurd later was reprimanded for leaving the meeting, and the investigation into his complaint was dropped.
In summer 2012, Hurd completed an official workplace harassment form after failing to get the reprimand removed from his file.
In August, he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint with the city and, a month later, a charge of discrimination with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission.
Brandon said an investigation into Hurd's complaints lasted until Dec. 17, 2014.
In a report to Mayor Chris Beutler that October, Kim Taylor-Riley, the city's director of equity and diversity, found that at least three chiefs disciplined Hurd four times over the course of two years and that now-retired Chief John Huff blocked him from a temporary promotion that came with a 10 percent pay bump.
Taylor-Riley said the reasons the chiefs gave to justify their actions were a pretext to cover retaliatory motives.
The report led the mayor to remove all disciplinary actions against Hurd from his file. He also approved Public Safety Director Tom Casady’s plan to address issues at LFR including retaliation and inconsistent discipline.
In the lawsuit, Brandon said Hurd has been scheduled to work nearly double the medic unit hours of other captain paramedics, like him, and he continues to be passed up for promotions despite high test scores.
That led him to file a second charge of discrimination with the NEOC last September.
Now, Hurd is suing Casady, Huff, Borer, Bonin, Pashalek and Benes.
He accuses them of retaliation and fostering an illegal, retaliatory hostile work environment by treating people who complain about discrimination differently and retaliating against those who refuse to accept a hostile work environment.
Hurd seeks unspecified damages and is asking for punitive damages to punish the defendants and deter others from doing the same.
Asked about the lawsuit Monday, City Attorney Jeff Kirkpatrick said the lawsuit in some ways was unexpected, given that Hurd's complaints have been investigated several times already.
He said even though the NEOC found no discrimination or retaliation, the mayor directed a number of steps be taken as the result of an internal investigation.
The city addressed concerns including consistency in discipline by giving supervisors the ability to see what action other supervisors have given in similar situations, Kirkpatrick said.
And, he said, it has addressed concerns about the Training Academy by having Casady work with a committee of professionals outside of LFR on improvements. And finally, battalion chiefs now must go through training on what retaliation is and how to avoid it.
Kirkpatrick said the internal investigation pointed out a number of ways LFR fell short and needs to do better, and city leaders are using it as a learning experience. And, he said, Hurd wasn't passed up for a promotion; there simply was someone within the department more qualified.
He said city attorneys will continue to work on both the most recent of Hurd's NEOC complaints and the new lawsuit.
"But we're pretty confident that we've responded to anything that needs to be fixed," Kirkpatrick said.