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News

Former paramedic sues Berlin Fire Company

8/29/13 | By Sheila R. Cherry, Associate Editor

BERLIN—A former paramedic and volunteer fireman on Aug. 27 filed a civil rights lawsuit in excess of $8 million against the Berlin Volunteer Fire Company and several of its current and former leaders for their alleged roles in a campaign of sexual orientation-based harassment and intimidation.

Attorney James Otway, of the Salisbury firm Otway, Russo & Rommel, filed the lawsuit on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court of Maryland on behalf of Zachary Tyndall, of Berlin. In the lawsuit, Tyndall names the fire company, its president, David Fitzgerald, current employee and former emergency medical service supervisor Norris Phillip Donohue Sr., volunteer fireman and Assistant Chief Derek Simpson and volunteer fireman and former Chief Bryon Trimble.

Tyndall accused the group of having discriminated against him because of what he described as their misguided belief that he was homosexual. He also charged that he was denied promotion because of their perceptions.

In petitioning for a jury trial, the lawsuit contends that the harassment launched to force him to resign from the company was “extreme and outrageous and beyond the bounds of decency. It was intentional, malicious, willful and done after repeated requests for cessation with the specific intent to injure,” he said.

Tyndall is asking for $2 million in compensatory damages and $6 million in punitive damages, along with legal costs and other expenses. He is seeking compensation for violations of his civil rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, for lost past and future wages, impairment of earning capacity, emotional distress, humiliation and past and future medical expenses and seeking punitive damages from the individuals for their alleged “willful, wanton, oppressive and malicious conduct.”

Earlier this year, Tyndall had also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In a June 20 notice, EEOC officials said it had closed the case file because it was unable to conclude that violations of federal statutes occurred.

 The notice of dismissal, however, allowed Tyndall to proceed with his lawsuit by granting him a 90-day window to sue under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, in either federal or state court. It also allowed him to pursue up to three years of back pay.

In his charges, Tyndall said he joined the fire company as a 14-year-old cadet and became a volunteer firefighter as soon as he was eligible at age 18. He was hired as a full-time emergency medical technician in 2008, he said. He also said that he came from a family with a history of volunteer service to the BFC and its auxiliary.

According to the document, the harassment began with Trimble repeatedly referring to Tyndall as a homosexual, a description that Tyndall insisted was inaccurate. He said Trimble’s comments continued despite Tyndall’s requests that he cease. He said Trimble continued the comments, including the use of pejoratives, before other members of the company, while both at the Ocean City Fire Company, and in front of Tyndall’s girlfriend.

Over time, Tyndall said, Simpson and Donohue began making similar comments. At one point in 2012, Tyndall said, during a conversation between Simpson, Tyndall and a local police officer, Simpson repeatedly referred to Tyndall as “gay.” The police officer confronted Simpson about his language, according to Tyndall, who added that Simpson then attempted to justify his comments.

Tyndall said he complained to company officials about the comments, “all to no avail,” as the name-calling and harassment continued and increased. Instead, he said, he was assigned demeaning tasks designed to make him quit, “such as washing their car, cleaning the latrine or picking up small pieces of trash at the firehouse.”

Since as a paid EMT, Tyndall was technically an employee of the Town of Berlin, he said he related the details of the harassment to the mayor and human resources director.

“This action only made day-to-day life at the firehouse more difficult than before. The insults, derogatory comments and other harassment increased in severity and number,” he said.

Other members of the company then joined the practice of referring to him as a homosexual and, after Fitzgerald allegedly made a veiled reference to the grievance complaint he and another firefighter made to the town, called for his termination, according to the lawsuit.

The town dismissed Donohue, who has reportedly since been rehired as a direct employee of the fire company, and defunded the fire company until it provides more financial accountability to the town. In the aftermath of the town’s attempts to resolve the situation, Tyndall said he found messages taped to his locker, which he construed as personal threats.

He also alleged that the ostracizing and intimidation caused anxiety that made him unable to continue his employment with the Ocean City Fire Company after it continued there, he said. He was fired from that post earlier this year.

But it was Tyndall’s account of an incident that occurred last Christmas that caused the most controversy in town. He said in his suit that he was responding to a car accident at Route 818 and Route 50 on Dec. 26, 2012 and tried to help the more seriously injured victim by placing the patient on a stretcher and helping them “bag breathe” to maintain respiration.

But, Tyndall said in the suit, none of the members of the company on the scene would help him move the stretcher or load it onto the ambulance as he continued to use the bag-breathing device on the patient. It was a Berlin police officer who responded to Tyndall’s request for assistance by driving the ambulance to Atlantic General Hospital, where the patient, 26-year-old Stephen Mumpower, ultimately died.

“This conduct further increased Mr. Tyndall’s fear and anxiety that he could not count on any of the members of the BFC to come to his aid, to assist him on an ambulance call, in a burning building or in the presence of any danger, even in a life or death situation,” the legal complaint said.

Tyndall also alleged that the continued harassment created a hostile work environment that made it impossible for him to adequately perform his responsibilities as a paramedic and fireman.

Fire company officials were solicited for comment on the accusations of the lawsuit, but have chosen not to do so at this time.

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