Justice Department announces lawsuit against City of Houston

The Justice Department announced a lawsuit against the City of Houston alleging "the Houston Fire Department (HFD) discriminated against two female firefighters on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII when it allowed them to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace."

The lawsuit was announced as part of the Justice Department's new Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative, which focuses on combating workplace sexual harassment in the public sector.

The Justice Department released this statement:

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division today announced a second initiative to combat sexual harassment; the effort announced today—the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative (SHWI)—focuses on workplace sexual harassment in the public sector.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division enforces Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against state and local government employers. The law prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, and religion. Sexual harassment is among the conduct prohibited by the law because it is a form of sex discrimination.  

The Justice Department will also announce its first enforcement action brought under the SHWI. The Justice Department will file a lawsuit against the City of Houston, alleging that the Houston Fire Department (HFD) discriminated against two female firefighters on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII when it allowed them to be subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace.

As part of the Initiative, the Justice Department will continue to bring sex discrimination claims against state and local government employers with a renewed emphasis on sexual harassment charges. The Department will also work to develop effective remedial measures that can be used to hold public sector employers accountable where Title VII violations have been found, including identifying changes to existing employer practices and policies that will result in safe work environments.

Through the Initiative, the Department will also conduct outreach to state and local government employers that centers around five critical areas: (1) creating trusted and safe avenues for employees to report sexual harassment; (2) ensuring management support for anti-discrimination policies and practices; (3) implementing accountability measures to ensure the timely and effective resolution of sexual harassment complaints; (4) adopting comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policies and procedures that include regular, tailored, and interactive training for employees; and (5) providing safeguards against retaliation for persons who report sexual harassment and for employees who support them.

“All Americans are entitled to work with dignity in a place that is free of sexual harassment,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore for the Civil Rights Division, in announcing the Initiative. “Through enforcement actions, effective remedial measures, and outreach, the Justice Department—under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ leadership—will fight to eliminate sexual harassment among public sector employers.”

The creation of this Initiative reflects the Department of Justice’s commitment to the aggressive enforcement of the nation’s anti-discrimination laws and an expansion of the Civil Rights Division’s efforts to eradicate sexual harassment under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In October 2017, the Justice Department announced the Civil Rights Division’s first initiative to combat sexual harassment, the Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative. In 2017, the Justice Department recovered more than $1 million in damages for victims of harassment in housing. Many instances of sexual harassment in housing continue to go unreported. The Justice Department’s investigations frequently uncover sexual harassment that has been ongoing for years or decades and identify numerous victims who never reported the conduct to federal authorities.

Additional information about the Civil Rights Division, its enforcement of Title VII and other civil rights laws it enforces is available on its Web sites at http://www.justice.gov/crt/ and http://www.justice.gov/crt/emp. 

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 341 released
the following statement from HPFFA President Patrick M. “Marty” Lancton:

“The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association has urged the City of Houston and other authorities to release findings of investigations of the 2009 allegations related to Station 54. Today’s federal lawsuit provides another opportunity to publicly exonerate the more than 40 firefighters that were polygraphed, gave sworn statements or handwriting samples in, or cooperated with investigations of HFD. We continue to believe the evidence – all of it – should be released immediately.

“From the beginning of this controversy, Houston firefighters have wanted the perpetrator(s) of the incidents at Station 54 found and punished appropriately. We believe in – and have fought for – better working conditions for all Houston firefighters. To that end, dozens of firefighters cooperated in the various investigations of this incident, but unfounded criticism of Houston firefighters has continued for years. Today, as then, the firefighters exonerated in the investigation deserve to be recognized as such. Former Mayor Annise Parker rightly said in 2010 that Houston firefighters were ‘unjustly under a cloud.’ Eight years later, the cloud remains.

“The time has come for authorities to release all of the evidence in this case. Without a proper conclusion, the unjust ‘cloud’ will undermine a basic tenet of our justice system – innocent until proven guilty. Anything short of public acknowledgement of the exonerated firefighters will only foster public misunderstanding of Houston firefighters. Houston firefighters deserve due process and a fair hearing of the facts. We hope this federal case finally sets the record straight on what actually happened at Station 54.”