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Salt Lake fire captain’s discrimination lawsuit moves forward in federal court

Judge’s ruling allows Martha Ellis’ allegations of discrimination, hostile work environment to go to trial

SHARE Salt Lake fire captain’s discrimination lawsuit moves forward in federal court

Martha Ellis was sworn in as the first woman division chief in the Salt Lake City Fire Department on Thursday, May 7, 2009. A federal judge has found a discrimination lawsuit between Ellis and Salt Lake City can move forward.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The yearslong lawsuit between Salt Lake City and Martha Ellis — who was the city’s first female fire battalion chief before she was demoted then fired after she filed claims of discrimination against her bosses — is moving forward in federal court.

While a judge has dismissed some portions of Ellis’ case, Salt Lake City still remains embroiled in the legal battle after the judge determined Ellis and her attorney have sufficiently supported her allegations to proceed to trial if there is no settlement.

To Ellis and her attorney, the Aug. 22 ruling passed down in federal court in Utah by U.S. District Court Judge Jill Parrish was a win — allowing the case that first began in 2016 to advance.

“Although this continues to be a very long ordeal, I’m happy with the depth and breadth of my case moving forward,” Ellis said in a statement to the Deseret News this week, adding that she’s “grateful” for the court’s “meticulous consideration” of her claims and what will be considered moving forward are “a fair and reasonable reflection of my assertions.”

Ellis in October 2016 filed the lawsuit against Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, former Salt Lake Fire Chief Brian Dale and two other high-ranking fire officials, claiming gender discrimination and retaliation for “whistleblowing.”

In her filing, Ellis alleged she was discriminated against as a woman after being passed over three times for a promotion to an assistant chief position. She also alleged she was wrongfully demoted from division chief to captain after she raised allegations that the department’s bosses were using city time for personal activities and were committing payroll fraud.

Ellis alleges Salt Lake City “deprived” her of her constitutional right to be free from gender discrimination, retaliation and a hostile work environment, in violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

Ellis claims the fire department’s top brass “engaged in intentional harassment and other discriminatory conduct based on her gender, including “sexist and sex-based comments,” such as telling Ellis to “throw tampons at employees” and calling her and other female employees vulgar names. She provided audio recordings of such conversations, alleging they showed a sexist culture within the fire department, and the city’s human resources department did little to address it.

The judge ordered some elements of Ellis’ case, including her retaliation claims, be dismissed on legal technicalities, agreeing with the city’s assertion that her retaliation claim is not legally cognizable in the 10th Circuit. The judge also dismissed individual defendants named in the case — but did not dismiss Salt Lake City, meaning the city as a whole could be liable if the court determines Ellis’ allegations are true.

The judge’s ruling allows Ellis’ allegations of discrimination and a hostile work environment to go to trial, determining she has “successfully alleged a basis for municipal liability” for those claims.

To Ellis, who worked for the city for 22 years and in 2009 became the first woman to hold the rank of division chief in the Salt Lake City Fire Department, the ruling brings her case another step closer to a favorable resolution for her and other female firefighters.

“This case is not, and never has been, just about me,” she said. “Throughout this process I have drawn strength from those who have gone before me and hope to set a precedence for those that will follow; all with their own dreams and aspirations of working in emergency service. I look forward to all aspects of my case seeing the light of day and the citizens of Salt Lake City knowing the truth.”

Matthew Rojas, the mayor’s spokesman, declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

Ellis’ attorney, Erik Strindberg, told the Deseret News he and Ellis are “very pleased” with the ruling, noting that “the judge pointed out very clearly how the city failed to address these serious issues.”

“One of the things that comes through in the order is that Martha repeatedly reported what was going on to H.R., to the mayor’s office, and that was ignored,” Strindberg said. “And that’s really putting aside all of the legal niceties. ... To me, what was of great concern to the judge was the failure of the city when they had the chance to step in and stop what was going on, and they didn’t.”

Particularly, Strindberg said the way the judge “summarized the facts and allegations were very strong for Martha.”

“She really pointed out some of this very destructive and nasty behavior that went on and she took exception to it.”

In the ruling, the judge wrote “it is clear that the continued harassment at work affected Ellis’s employment and work environment.”

“She was shut out of meetings by her colleagues because she complained about their behavior. ... She took medical leave and became clinically depressed because of her treatment by her colleagues,” the judge wrote.

Ellis was fired in 2017 after not returning to work after six months of leave for mental health issues, recommended by a city-provided mental health clinician, after her demotion, according to court filings. Ellis argues she tried in good faith to return to duty, but the city declined her request for accommodations including a short-term refresher training and a physical exam after months off the job.

Later in 2017, the Salt Lake City Civil Service Commission concluded Ellis’ demotion appeared to be based on allegations that were manufactured, leading Ellis to win her appeal to return to her rank. But since then, the federal lawsuit has continued to drag on, keeping Ellis in limbo.

Salt Lake City has until Oct. 4 to file an answer, and both parties will prepare scheduling orders that are due by Oct. 18, according to court documents.

Strindberg noted Salt Lake City officials have asked if he and Ellis would be interested in mediation. Strindberg said he and Ellis will explore that, including a settlement.

If there’s no settlement agreement reached, however, Strindberg said it will go to trial.