Lawsuits against fire chief raise workplace relationship issuesby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
The city of Minneapolis and its fire chief Bonnie Bleskachek are the subject of what an employment discrimination lawyer is calling "a modern-day lawsuit." Bleskachek, the first openly lesbian big city fire chief in the country, is being sued by three female firefighters for harassment and sexual discrimination.
Minneapolis, Minn. — The three women all allege that Bleskachek unfairly denied them opportunities to advance within the department. And they claim the chief based her decisions on her personal feelings toward the women, not on their job performance. Bleskachek's lawyer says those claims are false.
The complaints filed by Jennifer Cornell and Kathleen Mullen present a web of interpersonal relationships. Cornell is Bonnie Bleskachek's former partner, and co-parent of the chief's two children. The two underwent a volatile breakup and a child custody skirmish.
Kathleen Mullen says she's a former longtime friend of Bleskachek, who once dated the chief's current girlfriend, Mary Maresca -- who is also a firefighter. Mullen claims she ended her friendship with Bleskachek after she told the chief she couldn't support her relationship with Maresca.
The third plaintiff, Kristina Lemon, didn't have a relationship with Bleskachek. However, she claims that she was the target of Bleskachek's romantic advances. Lemon says she resisted, and later became the target of retaliation by Bleskachek.
Bleskachek's counsel denies those claims.
All three women allege that Bleskachek held a grudge against them, and used her position as a superior officer to keep them from advancing.
"I decided to take legal action against the fire department and the chief because I couldn't find any resolve within the city," says Lemon, a captain who has been with the Minneapolis fire department for 12 years.
Lemon is a lesbian who is currently dating another firefighter. Lemon says her problems with Bleskachek began in her first year on the job, when she worked in the same station as Bleskachek, who was then a captain. She claims that Bleskachek hit on her -- once telling her she had "sexual dreams" about Lemon.
Lemon says after that, she began trying to avoid Bleskachek.
"Her M.O. was kind of that she was non-monogamous," says Lemon. "That was her claim to fame in relationships, and that's something I didn't want to deal with. I certainly didn't think you have to deal with that in the workplace."
Lemon says Bleskachek was also known as a good firefighter who had influence throughout the department, partially because of her role in cofounding the Minnesota Women's Fire Fighters Association.
The association is designed to help women get ahead in the department. But Lemon says it's developed into more of a social network. She says her criticism of the association and her refusal to give in to Bleskachek's advances led to retaliation.
After Bleskachek became chief, Lemon claims she was denied opportunities to advance from captain to batallion chief. And she says Bleskachek unfairly disciplined her after another firefighter attacked Lemon on the site of a fire in 2005.
Later that year, fearing that she'd lose her job, Lemon filed a complaint with the Minneapolis Civil Rights Department. Dissatisfied with the pace at which the complaint was being handled by the city, Lemon filed a lawsuit this spring.
"The Kristina Lemon complaint smacks of an individual who has an axe to grind," says attorney Jerry Burg, who is representing Bonnie Bleskachek.
Burg also represented Bleskachek in her child custody battle with Jennifer Cornell. He says Bleskachek is not the vindictive person portrayed in the complaints.
"She wasn't pursuing Lemon. She never was pursuing Lemon," says Burg. "She's dating Mary Maresca, and before that she dated Jennifer Cornell. She is a monogamous person. So I think the general allegation that the chief was using the women's firefighter's association or the department as a dating service for herself is a fabrication."
The heart of the complaints by Cornell and Mullen involve the chief's involvement in an advancement test.
In February of this year, Mullen, Cornell and 11 other firefighters tested in competition for two batallion chief positions. According to their complaints, Mullen and Cornell scored the highest on the first section of the test. The rest of the applicants, including Bleskachek's girlfriend, Mary Maresca, failed.
Attorney John Klassen is representing both Cornell and Mullen.
"At that point, the testing process was suspended by the chief," Klassen says. "She suspended it for that day, and called Capt. Mullen and Capt. Cornell into City Hall the next day, at which there was a meeting. She stated to those present that she was unhappy with the test results."
A week later, the entire testing process was canceled, essentially delaying Cornell and Mullen's chances of earning the promotions.
Klassen says Mullen is hit hardest by the chief's decision. He says requirements for battalion chief have now changed, to require that applicants have a four-year college degree. And Klassen says Mullen doesn't have one.
But Bleskachek's lawyer, Jerry Burg, says the decision to throw out the tests wasn't made solely by the chief. He says Bleskachek was one of several city officials that saw the high failure rate as a cause for concern. Burg says the tests were canceled so the questions could be reviewed by the city's civil service office.
"It's ridiculous to conclude that the fire chief can unilaterally decide to stop the testing process for a promotion to batallion chief because she's angry, or because she has bad feelings toward an individual," says Burg. "City government doesn't function that way."
Burg says Bleskachek hasn't violated any city rules. He says his client has told her superiors about her relationships with Cornell and Mary Maresca. And Burg says other firefighters knew about who she was involved with.
Penny Phillips is a Minneapolis-based attorney who specializes in employment discrimination cases. She says the relationships outlined in the complaints raise serious concerns.
"When there is somebody in a position of authority having a relationship with a subordinate of any kind, that is usually something that an employer needs to be aware of, and to take steps to make sure, in the future, that it won't turn out in a negative fashion," she says.
Phillips says employers have to be especially careful with this type of workplace relationship. For instance, complaints can arise if the co-workers of a person in a relationship with a manager feel like that person is getting preferential treatment. Or they may suspect that the co-worker and manager couple are exchanging confidential information about other employees.
Some of those concerns have been raised by the plaintiffs who are suing Bleskachek.
And there are other problems that can arise if the manager/employee couple breaks up, especially when that split is contentious.
Chief Bleskachek's former partner, Jennifer Cornell, alleges the chief had a history of animosity toward her and kept her from advancing because of those feelings.
Without commenting directly on the merit of the lawsuits, Penny Phillips says workplace relationships like the one between Bleskachek and Cornell are potential legal pitfalls.
"The biggest problem would be if -- from a legal point of view -- if there's a direct ability to give an evaluation. To affect the terms and conditions of that person's employment," she says. "If they're completely separate departments, it's less of an issue."
The plaintiffs are also suing the city of Minneapolis, charging that city officials allowed Bleskachek to discriminate against them. Two of the plaintiffs say they had filed grievances or formally complained about the chief before they filed their lawsuits. Neither Mayor R.T. Rybak nor city attorneys will comment on the cases.
The lawsuits have gained nationwide attention, in part because of Bonnie Bleskachek's visibility as the first openly lesbian big city fire chief in the country, and because the case involves three lesbians suing another lesbian for sexual discrimination and harrassment.
Penny Phillips says same-sex discrimination cases are not in the majority, but she says they are not unusual.
"You can have sexual harrassement between a man and a woman, between a woman and a man, between two men and two women, so long as the claim is based on sex," says Phillips. "I don't want to minimize the allegations, but it is a modern-day lawsuit. The faces may change. The identities may change. But the allegations appear to be typical sexual discrimination, harrassment, discrimination claims."
The city of Minneapolis is conducting its own investigation of Bleskachek. Bleskachek remains on paid leave as that probe continues.
- Morning Edition, 06/13/2006, 6:45 a.m.