Barre settles ex-firefighters sexual harassment suit
By David Delcore
Staff Writer | November 01,2012
BARRE — A former member of Barre’s call firefighting force who sued the city on claims of sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal has been paid $250,000 to drop the case.
The terms of the settlement, which was reached after a mid-September mediation session, were disclosed this week. Rachel Wyatt had sued the city, its fire department, its chief and deputy chief, and two firefighters.
In addition to the $250,000 check that the city’s insurer, VLCT-PACIF Inc., wrote to Wyatt and her lawyers, the settlement essentially rewrites history.
Though Wyatt was fired by Chief Tim Bombardier on Sept. 8, 2010, the settlement effectively alters that reality.
Under the agreement, Wyatt was reinstated and then immediately resigned — both effective Sept. 8, 2010. Wyatt received a letter confirming her employment with the city, her “voluntary resignation” and her certification as an emergency medical technician.
Bombardier, Deputy Fire Chief Joe Aldsworth, Capt. Robert Howrath and his wife, and call firefighter Cindy Howrath, were all named as defendants in the lawsuit. All claims against them were permanently dismissed in the settlement, which also required their names be deleted from the “case caption.”
All parties are responsible for their own legal fees, though VLCT-PACIF Inc. picked up the bill for the mediator.
The Times Argus obtained a copy of the three-page settlement this week.
“This agreement represents a compromise to avoid litigation,” the document states. “By making this agreement, no party makes any admission concerning the strength or weakness of any claim.”
Though that agreement was signed by representatives of all sides Sept. 13, it wasn’t ratified by the City Council until the following week. The council disclosed a tentative settlement had been reached at that time but declined to release the details, citing provisions of the agreement.
One of those provisions essentially gave Wyatt time to change her mind, while another required she drop allegations against the individual defendants and the city before receiving a check payable to her and her attorneys.
One of Wyatt’s lawyers, Caroline Earle, described the settlement as a “satisfactory resolution” that underscores their client’s desire to “send a strong message that women who enter into nontraditional fields should be able to expect that their rights will be respected.”
Mayor Thomas Lauzon downplayed the significance of the six-figure settlement driven by the calculations of the city’s insurer, which was footing the bill for the city as well as four employees. The city, he said, was a “bit player” in those conversations and ultimately agreed to pay its $500 deductible rather than risk exposure associated with a court battle.
Lauzon described the allegations as “disappointing” but stressed the city takes those sorts of charges very seriously.
“We don’t tolerate that,” he said. “There’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment or any kind of harassment.”
All four of the employees who were defendants in Wyatt’s lawsuit are still working for the city, though it is not clear whether any of them faced disciplinary action.
“That’s a personnel matter,” said City Manager Steve Mackenzie.
The 30-page, 15-count lawsuit filed last year alleged a pattern of discrimination, harassment and abuse beginning shortly after Wyatt joined the department’s call force on March 25, 2009, and continuing through two suspensions and her eventual dismissal.
The lawsuit accused the Howraths of repeatedly subjecting Wyatt to a hostile work environment, accused Aldsworth of making numerous unwelcome sexual advances while serving as her supervisor, and claimed Bombardier ignored complaints about both when they were brought to his attention.
The lawsuit further alleged that Wyatt was repeatedly held to a different standard than other members of the department and was terminated after making an anonymous call to the state’s Emergency Medical Services Office expressing her concern about a co-worker’s fitness for duty.
Though Wyatt denied making the call, it was eventually linked to her, and she was first suspended and later fired by Bombardier. He said the dismissal was for lying, while Wyatt maintained it was in retaliation for opposing and reporting sexual harassment in the workplace.
Wyatt, who had asked for a jury trial, was seeking unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, as well as lost wages, attorney’s fees and reinstatement in the department.