Olentangy Valley News

Sexual harassment case

Orange Township offers firefighter her job back

By ThisWeek Community News  • 

A fired Orange Township firefighter who earlier this month won a gender discrimination court case against the township may get her job back.

Township trustees passed a resolution at their meeting Monday, March 11, approving a letter offering reinstatement to Raechel Peters, formerly Raechel Sterud. A Franklin County Common Pleas Court jury awarded Peters a nearly $1.7 million judgment against the township and a fire department supervisor following a week-long trial this month.

Trustee Chairman Rob Quigley said prior to the March 11 meeting that township officials would look at their options regarding the court decision.

Peters was fired in 2007 after complaining of sexual harassment by a co-worker. The jury award could be trimmed by about $779,000 -- an amount in claimed lost future wages -- if Peters is reinstated to her job and the judge in the case approves the re-instatement.

Peters' attorney, Dan Mordarski, said Peters loved being a firefighter, but at age 32, her options are becoming limited.

"She's happy the jury heard her and that some level of justice was served," Mordarski said, "but she is not a firefighter today and that is what she really wanted."

He said if a job was offered to Peters, that would be an option for further discussion.

"We have not received any information from Orange Township or their lawyers about a resolution regarding reinstatement," he said Tuesday, March 12. "However, Raechel tried to resolve this matter over five years ago by asking for her job back. Orange Township rejected that offer five years ago."

The township is on the hook for $1.67 million of the jury award, while Lt. Keith Myers, Peters' former supervisor, is liable for $75,000. The jury decided Myers acted with "actual malice" in recommending her termination. He is still with the department, as is the firefighter Peters claimed harassed her.

Township officials were mostly guarded in their comments on the case and how the township would pay the large jury award.

Voters just approved a fire levy in a special election last month to save the financially strapped department from closing. The department will scrape by this year on loans and money borrowed from the township general fund until collections on the levy begin in 2014.

"Obviously, (the township) is opposed to gender discrimination, as two of its top management positions, including the township administrator, are held by women, and other women firefighters have been employed by the township," Quigley said in an email.

Trustee Debbie Taranto said in an email that she is not comfortable talking about the case, as the actions occurred before she was elected.

Trustee Lisa Knapp said in an email that insurance could pay for some of the jury award, but township officials don't know how much.

Knapp said in her opinion township written policies on sexual harassment apparently were not followed.

"The township needs to conduct a thorough investigation of this situation so it does not occur again, and take action against any employees whose violations of township policies may have caused this huge problem," Knapp said. "Orange Township simply cannot afford to continue to operate like it has over the past six years or it will be bankrupt."

John Latchney, an attorney who represented the township in the court case, did not return a phone message about the case.

In his earlier comments, Peters' attorney Mordarski noted that Orange Township today again is an all-male fire department, and of the handful of women who have worked there over the years, Peters and two others have claimed harassment. The other two had left prior to Peters being hired but had received settlements, he said.

"There's a culture of (gender) discrimination" at Orange Township, Mordarski said. "I think it exists there from the top down."

The lawyer also said Myers worked with Chief Tom Stewart and Assistant Chief Matt Noble to come up with bogus reasons to fire Peters.

"I think the jury did a great job," Mordarski said. "For five and a half days, they listened to all the evidence and took extensive notes.

I think this verdict ... sends a message" that such discrimination should not be tolerated.

Peters claimed various kinds of harassment or discrimination, including that a co-worker frequently used the women's restroom at the fire department when she was there, often leaving the door open.

Mordarski said no one from the township has issued an apology to Peters and, to his understanding, no firefighters or other employees were disciplined because of what happened.

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