Firefighter’s lawsuit claims retaliatory harassment, drug abuse by supervisor

Joshua Weller claims he was retaliated against after standing up for a female colleague, and said his superior abused prescription drugs on duty


By Genevieve Bookwalter
Pioneer Press Newspapers

LINCOLNWOOD, Ill. — Attorneys will appear in court in March in the case of a former Lincolnwood firefighter accusing his male coworkers of "harassment" and a supervisor of "drug abuse" in a lawsuit he filed against the village and a private company Lincolnwood pays for fire protection services.

Joshua Weller alleged in the lawsuit that while he worked as a firefighter/paramedic in Lincolnwood, he saw "widespread discrimination" against a female coworker. After he "stood up to the mistreatment," according to the suit, other men he worked with and male superiors "responded by retaliating against him by harassing" and eventually firing Weller.

The lawsuit was filed by Weller's attorney, Daniel Zemans, in U.S. District Court on Aug. 30, 2017. But the defendants, which include Paramedic Services of Illinois, the village of Lincolnwood and "Jane and John Does 1-10," filed a motion seeking to have the suit dismissed. On Jan. 18, Zemans asked to drop the portion of the suit against Lincolnwood, while keeping the portion against PSI. The suit is next scheduled for court on March 1.

In his complaint, Weller says he was employed by PSI starting in October 2010, and the company placed him in Lincolnwood in December of 2015, where he worked until he was fired the following July. The north suburb is one of the few municipalities in Illinois to outsource firefighter staffing, according to village officials. Lincolnwood officials said outsourcing saves the village money on pensions and benefits for the workers.

Zemans, Lincolnwood Mayor Barry Bass, Lincolnwood Village Manager Tim Wiberg and Lincolnwood Fire Chief Michael Hansen, who also is vice president of fire and EMS operations for PSI, all declined to comment on the case, as it is pending litigation.

Through his attorney, Weller declined to comment.

The attorney representing Lincolnwood could not be reached for comment.

The woman at the center of the allegations in Weller's lawsuit could not be reached for comment. She no longer works for PSI, said Lincolnwood Village Manager Tim Wiberg.

Attorney Brian Holman, who is representing PSI, declined to comment specifically on the details in the complaint but noted the two motions to dismiss and said that Weller had voluntarily withdrawn a similar lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court.

Zemans said the county case was withdrawn because it was combined with additional allegations against the defendants as part of the federal lawsuit complaint.

In the lawsuit, Weller describes what he called a pattern of harassment.

"Mr. Weller quickly realized that, in the eyes of PSI coworkers and officers, (the female employee's) only problem was that she was a woman in a fire department in which supervisors and coworkers thought it was okay for them to degrade and harass her on a regular basis," the complaint reads.

Weller witnessed male coworkers calling his female coworker explicit vulgarities, describe her as "useless," talk to her "brazenly" about her breasts, tell her "she should not try to seduce anyone at work," and asked if she was sleeping with her coworkers, according to the complaint.

"Faced with the choice of joining in the mistreatment of (the female firefighter) or treating her with the respect she deserved, Mr. Weller opted for the latter, and made it clear to his coworkers and supervisors their behavior was unacceptable," the lawsuit says.

Weller said in his lawsuit that male co-workers called him the woman's "guard dog."

Weller also claims to have noticed and complained about the "ongoing abuse of prescription drugs by a superior officer while on duty that put the health and safety of patients, coworkers and the public at risk," according to the lawsuit.

Lincolnwood began contracting PSI's firefighting services in 1990, Wiberg said. Lincolnwood pays PSI about $2.8 million per year to staff its fire department, and firefighters and paramedics are not considered village employees.

Before starting with Lincolnwood, a lieutenant firefighter told Weller that the sole woman on the shift was a "massive bitch" and Weller "should report her to his superiors if she caused any problems," according to the complaint.

Weller further states in the lawsuit that male coworkers spread rumors that he and the woman were having an affair, asked Weller if he had impregnated her, asked for videos of the two having sex and texted him pornographic images asking if "the images depicted the type of sexual activity" Weller and the woman engaged in.

Male coworkers also pushed Weller's bed next to the female coworker's bed and covered it with a single blanket, according to the complaint. One superior told Weller to "ask her if she wants to have a threesome," according to the lawsuit.

In addition, according to the complaint, Weller reported a superior's "drug abuse," one that caused him to fall asleep while in training and on duty, "including while out on calls" and "began to nod off" while assigned to drive a 7-year-old girl to the hospital in an ambulance.

The superior also "abandoned his crew inside a burning structure in which a floor collapsed," according to Weller's lawsuit.

Weller said in the lawsuit that "less than a month after [his] final complaint about the harassment of and retaliation against him ... and just three days after he gave PSI the proof about [the superior's] drug problem ... PSI terminated [his] employment."

PSI told Weller he was being fired for "violating a cell phone policy and for violating HIPAA," according to the complaint. HIPAA is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, federal law that protects medical privacy.

After Weller was terminated, former coworkers spread rumors that he "engaged in sexual intercourse in the Lincolnwood Fire Department" parking lot with a village police officer, according to the lawsuit. Those unknown coworkers are named as defendants "John and Jane Does" 1-10 in the lawsuit, Zemans said.

Attorneys for the village and ones for Schiller Park-based PSI, the company with which Lincolnwood contracts for fire protection, filed motions on Dec. 27 and 28 to dismiss the suit. One motion argued the defendant, who is a man, could not have been discriminated on the basis of his gender. Therefore, the motion argued, the suit "fails to meet the pleading standard of gender discrimination."

The other motion to dismiss notes that Lincolnwood officials wrote a letter dated Aug. 30, 2016, "requesting PSI to reassign Weller to an organization other than the Village of Lincolnwood Fire Department."

Lincolnwood attorneys said in the motion that because the village's letter was written following Weller's July 14, 2016, firing, the village could not have interfered with a "contract that did not exist."

Additionally, the motion to dismiss argues that Weller does not qualify for protection under the Illinois Whistleblower Act because his supervisors, to whom he complained, did not work for a municipality.

Stephen Lasker, vice chairman of the Lincolnwood Board of Fire and Police Commission, said his committee does not regulate the fire department, only the police department, and he was not familiar with the lawsuit.

"The fire department is simply a rental service," Lasker said. "I know nothing about anything being filed because we don't have anything to do with them. ... We have nothing to do with individuals in that fire department in terms of hiring, firing and disciplinary measures. Even if we hear something we can't get involved with it."

Copyright 2018 Pioneer Press Newspapers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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