Federal judge rules former North Carolina firefighter’s discrimination lawsuit can continue

Published 9:00 am Sunday, March 20, 2022

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A federal judge has ruled a discrimination lawsuit filed by a former firefighter who was one of the highest-ranking females in a North Carolina fire department can proceed based on a claim of “disparate treatment.”

Attorneys for the city of Asheville and Fire Chief Scott Burnette had asked U.S. District Court Judge Martin Reidinger for a pre-trial summary judgment throwing out all claims by ex-firefighter Joy Ponder, the Asheville Citizen Times reported Thursday. Ponder claimed she had endured a hostile work environment and that Burnette and others inflicted emotional distress.

Reidinger dismissed claims against Burnette, writing in his order that he could not be held responsible under the 1964 Civil Rights Acts’ Title VII against employment discrimination because the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said “supervisors are not liable in their individual capacities for Title VII violations.”

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But the city, as the chief’s employer, could be held liable for his actions, which may have amounted to disparate treatment of Ponder based on her gender, the judge wrote.

Ponder deferred to her attorney, John Parker, for comment on the ruling.

“The Summary Judgment ruling by the Court had a very positive outcome for us,” Parker said in an email. “The Judge found that we had sufficient evidence of gender based discrimination by the City of Asheville to move forward to a jury.”

The trial is set for May 9.

Ponder, who resigned from her post as Asheville Fire Department division chief in September 2020, said she faced years of harassment and gender discrimination from Burnette after she led outside research on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder among city firefighters.

Ponder, who became division chief in 2014, took a leave of absence in early 2019 to battle breast cancer. She said that when she returned at the end of the year, Burnette and the deputy chief “designed and executed an effective demotion and campaign to display me as a poor performer and divisive employee.”

She was placed under her bosses’ close supervision — “effectively surveillance,” she said — told to stay away from the firefighters under her command and moved to an isolated corner office from which she said she “was afraid to even walk to the restroom or copier.”

“The continued harassment and abrupt disruption of my schedule and life that I had maintained successfully for many years led to a deterioration in my physical and mental health and I was forced to leave,” Ponder told The Associated Press in 2021.