POULSBO — North Kitsap Fire and Rescue’s insurance carrier settled a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 2010 for $675,000, according to documents provided on Oct. 22 by the department. The documents were provided in response to a public records request by the North Kitsap Herald.
As part of the settlement, reached in June, the lawsuit was dismissed the next month “with prejudice,” meaning another lawsuit based on the same grounds cannot be refiled. And the fire department “is not accepting any liability,” said its attorney, Mark Dynan of Tacoma.
NKF&R Fire Chief Dan Smith said he didn’t know if the settlement would affect the cost of the department’s insurance. “I’m not 100 percent sure what that impact will be. I’m certain there will be some impact, but to what degree that is, I don’t know.”
Tamara Dotson was a firefighter for NKF&R from January 1999 to July 2009 — first as a volunteer firefighter, and from November 2001 to July 2009 as a full-time firefighter/paramedic. She became a physician’s assistant after leaving the department.
In her 13-page complaint, Dotson alleged three male supervisors often bragged about their sexual prowess and made racist and sexually charged comments (one allegedly referred to attractive women as “sexual chocolate” and another allegedly exposed himself in the station).
Dotson claimed she was the subject or witness of harassing behavior in approximately 14 instances.
Dotson also alleged she had to use a restroom and shower used by men because no female restroom and shower facility was made available, that she was subjected to retaliation after having knee surgery, that she was denied training opportunities, and that her requests to be transferred to another department were denied.
She filed a claim with NKF&R in January 2010 and filed the lawsuit two months later. The department denied the charges and asked that the lawsuit be dropped; that request was denied by Superior Court Judge Jeanette Dalton.
Dotson’s attorney, Thomas S. Boothe, called the settlement a “negotiated resolution” and said it was “resolved amicably for both parties” — the department didn’t have to admit to anything, and his client can move on with her life. But he believes she had a strong case.
“The insurer paid enough that the district knew it had caused problems,” Boothe said. “It was a very substantial amount … Do I think she would have won? Yes.”
In a September 2013 interview, Smith said the department investigated Dotson’s allegations and “brought in some additional training so our employees know that that kind of behavior, if it did happen, that that’s not tolerated,” he said at the time. He said an outside investigator found “some of those alleged comments weren’t necessarily directed at [Dotson],” and that some of the alleged comments “were things she heard either second-, third- or fourth-hand.”
HR director Cindy Moran, whose husband was one of the accused, said at the time “we chose to counsel and educate” those accused in the complaint. She said the accused were advised that the department has a no-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment. But no one was disciplined because “the investigation was inconclusive.” (The three officers were captains at the time; two are now battalions chiefs.)
Moran said the department “responded as soon as we were made aware of the issue.” The department hired an outside educator to conduct training in sexual discrimination and harassment, and employees now participate in online training and are required to take and pass a test annually.
Moran said the department has “always had a harassment policy in place.” Employees can address inappropriate behavior or comments with the offending co-worker “and if that’s not comfortable, take it to their supervisor.”
In her lawsuit, Dotson named approximately six times that she complained to, or the behavior was witnessed by, a supervisor.
NKF&R spokeswoman Michele Laboda joined the department as a volunteer in 1994 and became a full-time paid employee in January 1997. In a 2013 interview, she said she hadn’t heard gender-biased remarks or sexual comments about women “in a very long time,” adding that the department provides regular training on sexual harassment.
“I think people become more sophisticated as the organization grows,” she said, adding that the environment in a volunteer department was once not unlike a bunch of guys “sitting around a pool table.” But, she said, “Their character changed as the department changed.”
Chief Smith said in that earlier interview, “I’ve been in the fire service for 32 years and I’ve seen a lot of things change. I’m not going to say we’re a squeaky clean organization, but things that used to happen 20 years ago are not acceptable now. People might say things, but are we making changes? We’re making changes all the time.”