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A Washington, D.C., appeals court ruled Thursday that a retired female firefighter who was allegedly sexually assaulted by three male co-workers in her bunk while she slept in 2000 and suffered years of disabling mental injuries as a result cannot collect workers compensation benefits.
The firefighter, formerly with the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, was “involuntarily retired” 15 years after the incident by the District of Columbia Police and Firefighters' Retirement and Relief Board “upon its determination that she was mentally disabled and incapacitated due to a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety and Depression,” according to case No. 15-AA-597, filed by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
The 15-year veteran firefighter reported the incident in 2013 to the District of Columbia Police and Fire Clinic after claiming to have suffered years of mental and sleep disturbances. With her claim, she requested her mental injuries be classified as a “performance of duty” injury. A clinical psychologist and neurologist subsequently diagnosed her with an anxiety disorder, which affected her "ability to . . . express her feelings, work under stress, make judgments, and deal with people in general," and prevented her from performing her duties as a firefighter, records state.
Following three separate hearings, the board concluded that her disability did not involve work and was therefore compensable only under retirement disability for injuries not incurred during performance of duty. This, instead of the provision for disabilities incurred during work hours, which provides benefits at a higher annuity rate, according to documents.
The appellate court on Thursday affirmed the board’s decision based on District of Columbia case law that holds “mental and emotional injuries resulting from sexual harassment in the workplace could not be classified as ‘injuries’ arising out of employment, since sexual harassment does not concern any task the employee was called upon to perform,” the ruling states.
One judge dissented, asserting that sexual harassment is not the same as sexual assault, as the woman had claimed, and questioning the decision that leaves her “punished by a reduction in an annuity for the rest of her life, as distinguished from workman's compensation in lieu of a common law remedy.”
“While the majority expresses concern that (the woman) would be forced to settle for compensation that inadequately addresses her injury, why is the court complacent with (her) receiving a reduction in an annuity for the remainder of her life because of its characterization of her injury,” Senior Judge Frank Nebeker wrote.
In response, Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby wrote in the ruling that the latest decision leaves the door open for other remedies: “Contrary to our dissenting colleague's position, declining to classify (her) injury as (performance of duty), is not a "punish(ment)" but rather, an opportunity for her to seek a more appropriate remedy for her injuries. (She) can bring a suit for her injuries under common law tort theories or any other remedy that she may be entitled to.”
A former New Smyrna Beach, Fla., firefighter on Tuesday was awarded a $444,000 verdict in her gender discrimination and retaliation case against the city.