Fairfax: Boy’s Club Wake-Up Call

Hernandez Settles and Fairfax Pays

In January, the U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals issued a withering and decisive opinion regarding Fairfax County’s appalling handling of the Magaly Hernandez complaint.

Hernandez alleged a hostile work environment with sexual harassment and retaliation, the Court agreed that a jury could well conclude the same.

From the Fourth District Opinion:

“Within the first few months of Hernandez’s work at Fire Station 42, Bruley [the station captain] engaged in inappropriate conduct toward her, including blocking her path in the hallway, placing his chin on her shoulder, and positioning his body “right up against” her. Bruley engaged in this conduct despite Hernandez’s repeated requests that she did not “like people that close to [her.]” Bruley also made several statements to Hernandez indicating his desire to see her in a bathing suit, and once asked Hernandez whether she would “be able to handle that big hose,” a comment that Hernandez construed as being sexual in nature.”

After Hernandez filed a complaint and transferred to another station there was an incident which WUSA describes “as a verbal disagreement during [a] basketball game with a male firefighter who was an “associate of Bruley’s.”

‘The County conducted an investigation and later issued Hernandez a written reprimand for workplace violence and unbecoming conduct. The reprimand stated that during the verbal confrontation, Hernandez exhibited “aggressive” behavior by “challeng[ing] the [male] firefighter verbally,” and by “violating his body space with [her] aggressive head and arm gestures.”

“At the outset, we observe that the written reprimand Hernandez received for “[w]orkplace violence” and “unbecoming conduct” arose from a verbal disagreement. On its face, the severity of the reprimand appears disproportionate to the brief, non-physical altercation. The County employee who investigated the basketball incident described it as “minor” when compared with other altercations between firefighters that he had investigated in the past.”

“…we conclude that based on the relative severity of the reprimand, its timing, and the other evidence in the record leading up to Hernandez’s protected activity, a reasonable jury could determine that the County retaliated against Hernandez.”

The Fairfax County Attorney’s response to these facts was to file a motion asking to have it all go away and the Court of Appeals nuked them in legal parlance.

The County settled as they had no choice.

The County and the Fire and Rescue Department (FRD) effectively abetted sexual harassment and a hostile work environment and then retaliated against the firefighter who reported it.

What You Think Doesn’t Matter

To my brothers and sisters in the FRD, you must step outside your echo chamber and dispassionately observe the facts as others, including political leaders and decision-makers, now see them.

The Fourth Circuit Decision is a millstone around your leathery neck.

The central fact is Bryan Hill, Fairfax County’s newish County Executive, who held the door as former Fire Chief Bowers made a quick exit in light of Kathleen Stanley’s letter excoriating his efforts to ensure equity for women.

I’ll bet Bryan Hill has seen a (white) boy’s club or two and may not be intimidated by their prospect.

He is currently dealing with a County Attorney who attempted and failed to defend gross misogyny in the FRD.

Those similarly culpable in the FRD include members who supported the actions against Hernandez and crucially, those who were silent and have remained so.

A member of Local 2068, the FRD union, recently wrote, “If you haven’t heard, we are currently fighting a political battle to be a part of the FC [fire chief] selection process. The current County Exec is playing hardball and those who we can usually count on for support are not stepping up.”

Maybe it’s time for some hardball.

Maybe Bryan Hill wants a Fire and Rescue Department that is free from hostility, harassment and retaliation.

If that is what he wants and he is looking for allies who has shown their support for such ideals?

Has Local 2068 spoken out aggressively for workplace equity in light of the Hernandez decision?

Which senior chief is on record?

To date, Kathleen Stanley is rather alone in her courageous stand.

And, of course, Magaly Hernandez lost her career.

The reality is that in the strata above the FRD, at the elected and senior-appointed county government level, the narrative is driven by the suicide of Nicole Mittendorff and now the facts of the Hernandez case.

Nicole Mittendorff

The other reality, yet to be addressed, or perhaps even realized, is that in the cultural zest for leather helmets and tiller-trucks the commitment to workplace equity was either lost or forfeited.

The U.S. Fourth District Court of Appeals has signaled the demise of the b’hoys, whether they know it or not, and a new crop of leaders has yet to emerge.


1 Comment

  • Dennis Michaliga says:

    Hardball approach? Perhaps. After 33 years with FXFRD it’s certainly disheartening to read of this stain on a department that gave me so much. But then, as a male, I didn’t endure the actions and inappropriate treatment cited over the last year or more. However, inclusion of a group that represents the majority of the employees of the F&RD, i.e., who, along with the Management of the department, it seems Mr. Hill wants to get the message ” …free from hostility, harassment and retaliation.” could allow a “teaching moment” of that message. Local 2068’s comments regarding the new chief’s qualifications/appointment are only one of the panel’s overall take and should be taken with a “grain of salt”?. Maybe I’m missing something, but IMO the County Execs’ dismissal of 2068’s participation are imprudent. My nickel…

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