Firefighter sues RI dept. over gender discrimination

Lt. Danielle Masse is alleging a pattern and practice of deliberate discrimination and harassment against women and lesbians

By Katie Mulvaney
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A female firefighter is suing the City of Providence in federal court, raising near identical allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination as those lodged by a former firefighter who in April was awarded $806,000 in damages by a jury that found she had been subjected to a hostile work environment.

Lt. Danielle Masse, a paramedic who joined the department in 2001, is alleging a pattern and practice of deliberate discrimination and harassment by the fire department against women and lesbians. Masse charges that she was subjected to undue retaliation and hostile, illegal behavior due to her complaints about the treatment of Lori Franchina, who successfully sued the department in federal court. Both Masse and Franchina are lesbians.

Masse, who was demoted from captain after a disciplinary hearing, is seeking unspecified damages for lost wages and emotional pain and suffering. She alleges that the timing of her demotion correlates to her testimony in Franchina trial.

According to the lawsuit, three separate juries have concluded that the department sexually harasses and discriminates against female employees since the first woman joined its ranks in 1992.

Masse traces her difficulties with the department to 2010, when she filed a charge of discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights complaining that she had been bypassed for promotional opportunities, physically assaulted by male coworkers and subjected to retaliation such being forced to share bathrooms with men. Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters union during the same time frame, filed a complaint with the city's equal employment opportunity officer accusing then Fire Chief Jeffrey Crawford of blatantly discriminating against female subordinates.

The city responded, as it did in Franchina's case, that any tensions with Masse were due to personality conflicts, not gender discrimination. The charge was resolved in the city's favor after Masse failed to comply with a procedural requirement, the suit says.

Masse, who is being represented by the same lawyer as Franchina, continued to endure harassment, including threats and violence, according to the lawsuit. She observed that women who engaged in consensual sexual relationships with their male coworkers were treated more favorably.

Masse alleges that the department notified her less than a week after she was revealed as a witness in the Franchina case that she was facing departmental charges. She says that Chief Scott Mello was heard saying, "We need to get Masse. We have to nail Masse on this thing."

The charges related to her insistence that a driver who was involved in a car wreck and apparently high on heroin be taken to the hospital Dec. 14, 2014, instead of being taken into custody by a state trooper. Masse overruled the trooper's objections in transporting the driver.

Masse was deposed in September 2015 in Franchina's trial with Mello present as she testified about firefighters cursing at Franchina, making inappropriate sexual advances toward a female lieutenant, and drinking on the job from a "liquor locker." She accused Mello of discriminating against her.

- A disciplinary hearing was held two months later, with Mello presiding. The city released its opinion demoting Masse just before the start of Franchina's trial. Her discipline was handed down less than three weeks after she took the stand, the suit says.

Masse accuses the city of discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, and retaliation in violation of state and federal law.

Emily Crowell, spokeswoman for the city, declined comment, other than saying the city had not been served.

Copyright 2016 The Providence Journal

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