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Former N.H. firefighter files harassment lawsuit against town

The former Bedford firefighter alleges the harassment created a fear of “physical violence and/or sabotage”


Bedford Fire Department Engine 1.

Bedford, N.H. Fire Department/Facebook

By Paul Feely
The New Hampshire Union Leader

BEDFORD, N.H. — A former Bedford firefighter alleges that over her 12-year career as a first responder in the affluent community, she was constantly harassed and targeted because of her gender,” fostering a fear of “physical violence and/or sabotage and concern for how false rumors” would affect her chances for advancement, according to a federal lawsuit filed against the town.

Susan Marden was the only female firefighter employed during most of her dozen years with the Bedford Fire Department, according to the filing in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit alleges town officials “went through the motions” when her concerns were brought to their attention but “refused each time to do anything meaningful to deter Marden’s bully’s behavior or provide her with a safe and harassment-free working environment.”

“As a result, Marden’s career at the Bedford Fire Department was mired in a culture of sexism and wrought with the anxiety of not knowing who she could trust,” the lawsuit claims.

Marden, who is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, has asked for a jury trial.

Jury selection has been set for May 20, 2025, before Chief Judge Landya B. McCafferty.

All workplace violence is not necessarily bullying or harassment, but all bullying and harassment are forms of violence

In response to a reporter’s request, Bedford Town Manager Rick Sawyer said in an email, “The town will not be commenting on the pending litigation.”

A request for comment sent to the Bedford Professional Firefighters Local 3639 last week did not receive a response.

Marden’s attorney, Olivia Bensinger of Shaheen and Gordon, said via email her client declined to comment on the lawsuit at this time.

In a court filing on behalf of the town, attorney Dona Feeney denied many of Marden’s claims, saying the “plaintiff’s alleged damages were caused in whole or in part by her own conduct.”

“The Town denies that its actions or those of its agents, servants or employees resulted in any discrimination which violated any state or federal law with respect to the employment of the Plaintiff,” the town’s response states.

Suit: Criticism was constant

According to the lawsuit, Marden — who “wanted to be a firefighter since she was three years old” — began working full-time for the Bedford Fire Department on May 18, 2010 and was the only female firefighter with the department until September 2020.

In court documents, Marden and attorney Bensinger claim the “institutional and physical barriers to full participation in the fire department were immediately apparent.”

“The only locker room for women was shared by Marden with the female dispatchers and police officers,” the lawsuit states. “If Marden was in the bathroom, she was not able to hear emergency calls, which were broadcast throughout the fire department, including in the men’s locker room.”

Despite multiple requests by Marden for a radio to be installed in the locker room, the situation wasn’t addressed until Scott Hunter became deputy chief in 2017, seven years later, according to the lawsuit.

Harassment is a systemic issue, meaning it’s not simply an isolated issue between two people

Marden expected to have to prove herself and endure “some hazing,” the lawsuit states, but she did not expect to be “singled out with a constant barrage of criticism” each shift.

“During her first year, it became clear to Marden that the harassment and belittling she was experiencing was more than just introductory hazing designed to test her mettle. Marden was being targeted because she was the only female firefighter.”

Sexist jokes alleged

The lawsuit also alleges department members exchanged sexist jokes and comments.

In the lawsuit, Marden claims one firefighter in particular allegedly bullied her because of “special treatment” he perceived she was receiving because of her gender.

In response to complaints she made about the bullying, the lawsuit claims the town manager blamed Marden’s communication style for the harassment she was subjected to, allegedly writing:

“It is clear to me that you are a very straightforward person who elects to address issues with co-workers in a direct manner. Although that can be an admirable trait, it is not an appropriate tactic for all situations or all personalities.”

The lawsuit states, “Telling women that their communication style is too direct is a recognized form of gender-stereotyping discrimination.”

The only way to finally end sexual harassment within our ranks is if everyone speaks up when they see it or experience it

Eventually, the town implemented a Memorandum of Understanding stating Marden and her main antagonist were prohibited from working or training together. Commanding officers took it a step further and decided the two “were not even allowed to be in the same room,” according to the lawsuit.

Marden’s firefighting career ended because of an injury on Sept. 15, 2021, when she suffered her second concussion in a short period of time during a drill.

(c)2024 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)
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