Ohio fire cadet files sexual harassment lawsuit against former battalion chief
The cadet alleges she was coerced to undress and sexually touched by her instructor, a battalion chief who resigned last year and is currently under police investigation
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A female Columbus Division of Fire cadet has accused a former high-ranking departmental official of coercing her to disrobe and sexually touching her while the two were alone in his office.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages greater than $25,000 against the city of Columbus, the division and the official, former Battalion Chief Joe Richard, who resigned last year amid allegations of inappropriate comments to female employees and a rape investigation by the Columbus Division of Police.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Franklin County Common Pleas Court, also challenges the constitutionality of Ohio's tort reform law that caps settlements at $250,000.
"Ohio has one of the most-extreme forms of so-called tort reform," said John Fitch, the Columbus attorney representing the cadet. The Dispatch's policy is to not name alleged victims of sexual assault.
The suit alleges that Richard coerced the woman "into removing her pants" while she was not wearing underwear, supposedly to look at an injured knee that the woman said was preventing her from doing exercises with her cadet class.
While naked from the waist down, the lawsuit claims, Richard had her do exercises as he watched, and sexually touched her at one point. The woman interpreted comments made by Richard to mean that she could get kicked out of the cadet program if she failed to follow his orders, the suit alleges.
Richard's attorney, Larry James, said Wednesday that there are two versions of the story, which involves Richard befriending and mentoring the cadet and trying to help her get a knee brace.
"You don't want to speculate as to character assassination," James said, adding that he hadn't yet seen the lawsuit.
The city does not comment on pending litigation, said Kate Pishotti, a spokeswoman for the Public Safety Department.
The Dispatch reported in October that three female employees had told internal division investigators that Richard had made sexual comments to them, and repeatedly asked them personal sexual questions.
Richard, 61, a 35-year veteran who supervised recruiting for the fire division at the Parsons Avenue facility on the South Side, was put on paid leave in October after the investigation was turned over to Columbus police.
Richard resigned later in October. James said at the time that Richard had decided it was best for everyone involved if "he simply moved on."
The newspaper reported in December that police had categorized its investigation into Richard a rape investigation. Further document releases showed that red flags had been raised within the division last year about Richard calling female cadets, students who are paid to train at the academy to be firefighters under a part-time program, into his office for frequent private meetings.
©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)