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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Crisfield Fire Department Lawsuit Dismissed

CRISFIELD -- A gender discrimination lawsuit filed by a woman who was turned down three times by the Crisfield Fire Department to serve as a volunteer firefighter was dismissed this week in federal court.
U.S. District Judge Benson Everett Legg ruled Monday that Juanita Nelson failed to prove her case, and granted summary judgment to the defendants.
"Because there is insufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude that the plaintiff was denied membership in the fire department because of her gender, the court will, by separate order, grant the motion," Legg wrote.
Louis Hickman, president of the fire department, said he and other members learned of the case's outcome Monday.
"We're very happy with the decision," he said. "(The lawsuit) had a black eye on us."
One of Nelson's attorneys, Luke Rommel of Salisbury, said he and his partner, James Otway, are considering what step to take next.
"Obviously we're disappointed," he said. "We're considering whether to file an appeal."
Nelson's attorneys have 30 days to decide whether to appeal the case to the 4th Circuit in Richmond, Rommel said.
Nelson filed the lawsuit, seeking $4.5 million in 2010, claiming fire department members voted against her because if a woman was in the department "it will never be the same."
But Legg said fire department members in depositions gave various reasons for voting against Nelson. Some said they did not care for her personally, while others said she was known for creating controversy wherever she went.
Some firefighters said Nelson had created ill will at the Lower Somerset Ambulance & Rescue Squad in Crisfield, where she was a volunteer EMT, and once tried to oust the captain.
"In sum, a number of members asserted that they voted against Nelson because she has a reputation of generating friction and controversy," Legg wrote.
In addition to the fire department, the lawsuit also named members Ronnie Hinman, Larry Tyler and Charles Cavanaugh. Tyler has since died, and Legg found that statements alleged to have been made by Hinman and Cavanaugh were "inadmissable hearsay."
Nelson said in her lawsuit that she had enrolled in a firefighter training course and finished in the Top 10 in her class. She also met all of the physical requirements.
She first applied for membership in the Crisfield department in January 2008, but was told she did not receive the necessary two-thirds majority vote from members.
She was turned down again in August 2008 and February 2009, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleged that Hinman, known as "Pork Chop," began soliciting older, nonactive members of the fire department who don't normally attend meetings to turn out to vote against Nelson's application.
But Legg said in spite of some members' dislike of Nelson, she had strong support within the department, and several members actively sponsored her candidacy.
The judge also found there was not enough evidence to support Nelson's complaint of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
 Juanita Nelson was one of only three women to ever apply for membership in the fire department, Crisfield Fire Department President Louis Hickman said. One of the three, Nikki Powell Dodson, was accepted last year. 

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