The East Greenwich Fire Fighters Association, Local 3328, filed a motion to dismiss Tuesday in the lawsuit filed by Kristen Henrikson against the union, individual EG Fire Commissioners, former Fire Chief John McKenna and the Fire District itself, claiming job discrimination. Henrikson is the wife of current Fire Chief Peter Henrikson and works as a clerk for the District.
In her lawsuit, Henrikson said that she was discriminated against when she was not offered a fire fighter’s position in 2009.
She first filed a complaint with the state Commission of Human Rights, in March 2010. In March 2011, the commission determined there that no probable cause existed to believe that the Fire District had violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Henrikson was given the “right to sue” by the R.I. Commission on Human Rights on May 23. The union’s motion, filed in federal District Court, argues that Henrikson filed her lawsuit after the 90-day limit for such filings, thus rendering it moot. She filed her suit on Aug. 23, 2011 - 92 days after the May 23 filing.
In addition, the union said that Henrikson failed to “exhaust administrative remedies” - arguing that her complaint before the Commission on Human Rights varied from her complaint in the lawsuit.
Henrikson's suit also cites the R.I. Civil Rights Act, which carries a three-year limitations period and carries no "administrative remedies" requirement. The union's motion does not address those claims.
Meanwhile, the Fire District filed an answer to the lawsuit on Friday, Oct. 7. An “answer” differs from a motion to dismiss in that it is not asking the judge to rule on the merits of the lawsuit before it is heard. However, the legality of the timing of Henrikson’s filing was questioned.
Henrikson initially applied for and was offered the job of fire marshall, based on successful completion of the courses necessary as per any recruit.
According to Henrikson’s complaint, the job of fire marshal requires that the person be a qualified fire fighter. After Henrikson began training for the fire marshal job, she told McKenna that she would prefer to be a fire fighter. The fire marshal job was posted again and Henrikson continued to train as a fire fighter.
In May 2009, McKenna told Henrikson that one of the district’s fire fighter recruits was going to be let go and that he intended to call the next person on the new recruits list. At that time, Henrikson had two weeks until she would be finished with EMT class. She asked McKenna to wait to fill the position for those two weeks, according to the complaint.
A day later, McKenna told Henrikson that the Fire District’s legal counsel had told him to wait the two weeks and that Henrikson could apply for the fire fighter position at that time. Within 48 hours, however, according to the complaint, the Fire Commissioners voted to move ahead with the hiring process and pick the next name on the new recruit list.
In June 2009, two union representatives - Mark Collins and Bill Purcell - met with Henrikson and told her that they wanted her to go through the union rather than the chief with regard to vacant positions. In addition, according to the complaint, Collins said the union did not think she meet the qualifications for the position.
The complaint also stated that Collins said Henrikson must “complete the written test, perform the ladder climb and swim test and participate in the oral board examination to be qualified for the position” - a process that all new hires to the district must undergo. However, Henrikson was not a “new hire” - she worked for the District as a clerk. The lawsuit claims that she should not have been subject to new-hire regulations.
When Henrikson asked to be placed on the new hire list in July, McKenna said no, telling her she must complete the same requirements as a new hire. She then filed a grievance with the union. The Fire Commissioners weighed in during a November meeting, voting against Henrikson’s transfer to a fire fighter position.
The complaint adds that currently there are no female fire fighters in the district.
Chief Peter Henrikson, who is not named in the lawsuit and was only made chief after his wife’s initial filing with the Commission on Human Rights, has declined to comment.