3 Davie firefighters file lawsuits alleging harassment, discrimination

Three firefighters — including one whose complaints led to an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice — have filed separate federal lawsuits against the town alleging discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Firefighter Lori Davis accuses supervisors of targeting her after she complained in 2010 that the department's treatment of pregnant firefighters was discriminatory.

Firefighter Kristin Rohrer, who became pregnant in 2010, says she was repeatedly humiliated by male coworkers who ridiculed her for using a breast pump, accusing her of taking breaks to "pull on her udders."

Jose Rivero, a battalion chief hired 18 years ago, claims he suffered retaliation after telling federal investigators the department discriminated against women by treating them as second-class citizens and denying them promotions.

All three firefighters are seeking a jury trial along with punitive damages, back pay, attorney's fees and compensation for pain and suffering.

Town Attorney John Rayson and town spokesman Phillip Holste declined to comment, citing the town's policy of not commenting on pending litigation.

Davis says her work environment turned hostile after she became pregnant in 2009.

At that time, the town let firefighters injured on the job work light-duty assignments, but did not do the same for pregnant firefighters until their second trimester.

When Davis submitted a doctor's note requesting light duty, she was told she had to wait until her second trimester. A week after fighting a fire, Davis miscarried — just 17 days before she was to go on light duty.

A complaint Davis filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission led to a federal investigation by the Justice Department in late 2011. After a four-month investigation, justice officials warned the town its policy regarding pregnant firefighters violated federal law.

Davie has since discontinued the policy and now provides pregnant firefighters the benefits allowed under federal law.

Davis has been snubbed and undermined by Fire Chief Joe Montopoli and Deputy Fire Chief Michael Malvasio and continues to experience discrimination and retaliation for shining a spotlight on the department's treatment of pregnant firefighters, court records say.

In her lawsuit, Davis accuses a direct supervisor of grabbing her buttocks during training and yanking on her ponytail in a sexual way meant to simulate oral sex.

After Davis complained about both incidents, she received text messages from co-workers warning her to "watch her back," said attorney Erik Nelson, who is representing both Davis and Rivero.

Davis's lawsuit claims the town has continued to target and harass her after she was injured during a training exercise in June 2013. After a three-day hospital stay, Davis was back at work when a battalion chief ordered her in front of a coworker to submit to drug testing without due cause, in violation of town policy, according to the lawsuit.

Davis was placed on administrative leave pending the results.

Soon everyone in the fire department was under the "erroneous belief" that Davis had been caught using drugs, the lawsuit says. Davis later returned to her position of crew leader and driver of her rescue truck, but the damage was done, the lawsuit says.

"When you have federal agents come in from Washington, D.C., people usually cooperate fully and these things tend to resolve rather quickly," Nelson said. "This case is exceptional in that these issues have not resolved. The litigants in these cases, above everything, are pushing for change at the town of Davie."

Nelson described Rivero as a well-respected battalion chief and military veteran who has been subjected to demeaning glares and scowls from the department's deputy chief.

On one occasion, Malvasio came up behind Rivero, grabbed his shoulders and pushed down "as you might use to make a dog heel," court records state.

"It took a lot of courage for him to stand up and speak out about what was occurring at the town of Davie," Nelson said of Rivero.

Joshua Entin, an attorney representing Rohrer, says his client is also hoping to change the boys' club culture of the Davie Fire Department.

Rohrer complained several times about the harassment and hostile work environment, but her complaints were ignored by the town, the lawsuit says.

sbryan@tribune.com or 954-356-4554