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Justice Department Files Lawsuit Against City of Houston for Sex Discrimination and Retaliation

The Justice Department has filed 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 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick. Title VII is a federal statute that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of Texas, alleges that Jane Draycott and Paula Keyes were subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex when they were employed as firefighters at HFD’s Station 54. According to the complaint, HFD’s hostile work environment included males urinating on the walls, floors and sinks of the women’s bathroom and dormitory, disconnecting the cold water to scald the women while they were showering, and deactivating the female dormitory’s announcement speakers so the women could not respond to emergency calls. The complaint further alleges that the conduct culminated in death threats and vulgar slurs written on the walls of their work and living spaces at Station 54 and on their personal possessions. This conduct continued despite at least nine complaints made to management, according to the allegations.

The lawsuit further alleges that HFD retaliated against Draycott in response to her complaints by permitting her co-workers to publicly disparage her in an attempt to prevent her from returning to work at Station 54 and that she was forced into early retirement because of her intolerable working conditions.

Other female firefighters who had previously worked at Station 54 allegedly made similar complaints to HFD about sex-based discrimination prior to Draycott and Keyes working there. According to the complaint, HFD did not take meaningful steps to stop the discrimination.

Through this lawsuit, the United States seeks to require HFD to develop and implement policies that would prevent sex discrimination and retaliation. The United States also seeks monetary relief for Draycott and Keyes to compensate them for the damages they sustained as a result of the alleged discrimination.

“Far too often, women are targeted and harassed in the workplace because of their sex,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General John Gore of the Civil Rights Division. “Employees have the right to work in an environment that is free from sex discrimination and retaliation. The Civil Rights Division—under the newly created Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative—will continue to work vigorously to protect employees from these workplace abuses.”

“No employee should be subjected to a hostile work environment based on their sex,” said U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick. “We will aggressively protect employees who are victims of sex discrimination and retaliation and pursue employers who violate the law.”

Draycott and Keyes each filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The EEOC’s Houston Office investigated the charges and made reasonable cause findings. After unsuccessful conciliation efforts, the EEOC referred the charges to the Justice Department.

The Civil Rights Division’s Employment Litigation Section brought the case in collaboration with the U.S. Attorneys’ Office for the Southern District of Texas.

This lawsuit is the first of a new initiative announced by the Department of Justice today, the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Initiative, which is aimed at combatting sexual harassment and sex-based harassment in the public sector workplace. It is the second initiative created under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions to combat sexual harassment; the first initiative, the Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative, was announced in October 2017 to fight sexual harassment in housing.

More information about Title VII and other federal employment laws is available on the Civil Rights Division’s website at www.justice.gov/crt.