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3 Dallas Fire-Rescue sexual harassment lawsuits have cost the city $1.4 million in legal fees

Chief Eddie Burns accused of sexual harassment

Chief Eddie Burns

According to The Dallas Morning News, the “city of Dallas has spent nearly $1.4 million in legal fees defending itself in three sexual harassment lawsuits filed by four women against Dallas Fire-Rescue.”

Two of the lawsuits were settled recently for over $250,000.  In June, the city agreed to pay employee Helen Watts $30,000 to settle the sexual harassment lawsuit that she had filed.  In October, the city agreed to pay former employee Cheryl Hill and current employee Sherrie Lopez a total of $225,000 to end their case. 

Hill alleges that she found semen in her coffee mug and smeared on a photograph of her daughter in her office.  Lopez claims that she would often find personal items destroyed and once discovered someone had urinated on the rug near her bed.

The third lawsuit, filed by former employee Leanne Siri-Edwards, has not been resolved yet.  Siri-Edwards, who was once the highest-ranking woman at Dallas Fire-Rescue, was fired in August 2009 – several months after she filed a sexual harassment and hostile work environment against the city. 

Hill and Lopez allege that when they complained to their supervisors about the hostile incidents, their complaints were mostly ignored and they often suffered retaliation.

The following are excerpts from the Hill-Lopez complaint, which was filed on Sept 8, 2010 (the entire complaint can be accessed here):

Chief Eddie Burns publicly [told] the DFR’s highest-ranking female employee, “the problem is you’re a woman” and that she should be seen but not heard in meetings.

Chief Burns [made] sexual advances to as many as three female subordinates.

Chief Burns promoted a male DFR employee who was known to consistently sexually harass female employees, thus furthering an environment that accepts and approves of harassment of members of the Class;

Additionally, it has been reported that Chief Burns himself, on at least three separate occasions, met with perpetrators of workplace assault, battery, discrimination and harassment and counseled them on how to refute and avoid the charges against them.

In the interim between reporting of the Berkshire Report to the Dallas City Council and hiring of the EEO Officer and Assistant Chief of Professional Responsibility, Chief Burns asked DFR’s Executive Officer, Leanne Siri, to develop an anti-racism and sexual harassment/discrimination program. In developing the program, Siri met with James Adams, a black male who led DFR’s Internal Affairs Department (“IAD”) at the time of the Berkshire Report, to discuss the existing processes and training and ways in which they could and should be improved. She was dismayed to see an inappropriate CD cover depicting a nude woman wrapped in a fire hose displayed in Adams’ office.

Approximately three weeks later, on April 1, 2008, Hill arrived at work, unlocked her office door, turned on her light, put up her purse, sat down at her desk and reached for her coffee cup, which she had cleaned the day before. As she looked down into her cup, she noticed a fluid in the bottom that appeared to be seminal fluid. She then noticed the substance was also smeared on a photo of her daughter.

On July 23, 2008, nearly four months after the date of Hill’s report, DFR’s Internal Affairs interviewed Rolando Banda (the prior occupant of the office and one of the few people who Hill originally reported had keys to her office) regarding the incident. During questioning, Banda admitted he was the perpetrator. Despite DFR’s supposed “no tolerance” policy, Banda was placed on paid administrative leave until October 2, 2008, when he retired from DFR.

Lopez received a disturbing call from Terry Roberts, the Lieutenant in charge of her station.  Lt. Roberts was angry at Lopez for investigating the swing issue, and berated Lopez, yelling, “I don’t like you, I don’t trust you, and I want you out of here!” and “You bring this shift down!”  Lopez feared for her personal safety and her job after the call.

In the Spring of 2007, after almost nine years at Station 9, Lopez had given up.  She sought transfer to work at a desk job at City Hall.

In September 2007, Lopez filled out a witness statement with DFR’s Internal Affairs Department complaining of the harassment as well as the TAP issue.

On or about October 4, 2007, Lopez received another disturbing phone call from Lieutenant Roberts.  Roberts accused Lopez of lying about him and being after his job.  Lopez was again in fear for her safety.

On the same day, Lopez reported the call to Captain Frank Drahos, who was performing the Internal Affairs investigation.  Drahos asked Lopez to report to Internal Affairs and berated Lopez.

While at City Hall, Lopez continued to face discrimination and harassment.  DFR employees, including high-ranking officers, would make comments about Lopez or her female supervisor as they pased her in the hallways or on the street.  For example, on one occasion, Chief Mike Jones referred to Lopez as “Siri’s bitch,” in front of Lopez.  Lopez reported the incident to Chief Tom Tanksley.  Upon information and belief, no action was taken.

Additionally, Lopez continued to find it difficult to perform her job responsibilities…she would often find DFR Chiefs were hesitant, or even outright resistant, to provide her with information she requested.

On one occasion, Lopez was assigned by her female supervisor (Leanne Siri) to go to the Academy and gather information about the rookie class.  However, when Lopez attempted to perform her job, Chief Max Kirk said, “Don’t give her anything, she works for the enemy.”

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3 Dallas Fire-Rescue sexual harassment lawsuits have cost the city $1.4 million in legal fees
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