Steven Saunders always dreamed of becoming a firefighter, like his father and grandfather—but he says that dream crashed and burned after his fellow White Plains firefighters learned he was gay.
“Being a firefighter is very much a part of his identity and he feels really betrayed by his fellow firefighters,” said the White Plains resident’s lawyer, Debra Cohen—who is jointly representing him with civil rights attorney Randolph McLaughlin and the law offices of Lori Sullivan.
“The whole relationship between firefighters is built on a foundation of trust, and he feels like an important part of his life has been taken away from him.”
The 43-year-old father of three is suing the City, various departments and its employees for what he described as his continual suffering of harassment in a hostile work environment, due to the unauthorized outing of his sexual orientation. A situation he claims supervisors never sought to remedy, despite his requests.
“We would like to believe, this day in age, this homophobic behavior is a hint of the past,” said Cohen. “But apparently, there are still people that need to understand what the law is in regards to harassing people because of their sexual orientation, and get over it.”
White Plains Public Safety Commissioner David Chong, who oversees the City’s fire bureau, said he could not comment on pending litigation. White Plains Chief of Staff and Corporation Counsel John Callahan said though the City has received a notice of claim, it has not been served with the complaint, and that the City won’t comment until they receive it.
Cohen wouldn't specify the exact amount Saunders was seeking in damages.
“He’s going to be seeking substantial monetary damages for his physical and emotional suffering,” said Cohen. “We’re hoping he’ll be able to retire from the fire department with the respect he deserves, and with the full pension and benefits he deserves.”
The lawsuit names the City of White Plains, the White Plains Public Department of Public Safety, the White Plains Fire Bureau, Fire Chief Richard Lyman, Deputy Fire Chief Richard Houlihan and Deputy Fire Chief Mark Farrell.
Saunders, a White Plains firefighter for 17 years, said he was harassed from Dec. 15, 2008, until August 2010 when he went on sick leave. Since then, Saunders has been on disability. According to Cohen, Saunders’ doctors say he cannot return to work as a firefighter, and may never be able to.
According to court documents, Houlihan allegedly outted Saunders to his fellow firefighters in December 2008 without permission after Saunders confided in him since rumors about his sexual orientation were floating around Station #6. In January 2009, Saunders was assigned as Houlihan’s driver, which Saunders claims was done so he wouldn’t have to sleep in the same area as the other firefighters.
Saunders alleges that he was subjected to homophobic comments between other firefighters that were made in the presence deputy chiefs and lieutenants—who he said talked about his sexuality when he was not present.
He claims he was present for a conversation where an office assistant allegedly cited that a schoolteacher was “obviously a fag,” and that she didn’t know why a man “like that” was hired.
In the summer of 2009 Saunders alleges that Houlihan accused him of stealing money from the deputy chief’s desk and stated that there was a formal investigation into Saunders for the theft. Saunders claims no one else was ever accused or questioned, and that there never was an investigation.
At the end of the summer of 2009 Saunders was moved from fire station to fire station. That fall, Saunders said he suffered direct verbal attacks and physical gestures “including, but not limited to, other firefighters walking with their backside up against a wall in a mocking way, as if to prevent their rear ends from an attack by the Plaintiff,” court papers say.
When Saunders reported the incidents and asked for help he says he was allegedly told to “keep your mouth shut about it,” and “get thicker skin, because everyone gets teased—Blacks, Hispanics and Italians.”
From that time until August 2010, Saunders said he switched tours and used sick time to avoid “the hostile work environment and the physical and psychological affects he suffered as a result of ongoing harassment at work,” court papers say.
On Aug. 3, Lyman allegedly questioned Saunders about his absences. Saunders explained the situation and said Lyman promised to remedy the situation though nothing was ever done—according to Saunders’ court complaint.
In October 2010, Saunders claims that Houlihan allegedly admitted to mishandling the situation and asked Saunders if he was interested in early retirement or if he wanted to return to work as his driver “to be partially protected from the guys,” court documents say.
Saunders said he didn’t want to be anyone’s “poster child” for gay rights.
“Before this happened I defined myself as a firefighter and a father,” said Saunders, in a press release. “They have taken away my ability to continue as a firefighter. But I can still send a message to my children not to be afraid to stand up for who you are.”
Saunders is suing for violation of the sexual orientation non-discrimination act; negligence; negligent training, supervision and discipline of employees; intentional infliction of emotional distress; and negligent infliction of emotional distress