Editor's note: This story has been updated from the print version. It includes PDFs of the lawsuits. The links are at the bottom of the story.
Two Bryan County Fire and Emergency Services employees, including one who says she was forced to resign, are suing the department and its chief, alleging they were retaliated against for reporting a pair of high-ranking BCFES employees for policy violations.
The lawsuits on behalf of Lt. Sarah Bradbury and former Division Chief Summer Patterson were filed July 7 in Bryan County Superior Court. Copies of the suits were emailed to local media July 9 by an anonymous source claiming to be a BCFES employee.
Both “whistleblower” lawsuits name the department and Chief Freddy Howell as defendants. Both are seeking damages.
The attorney for both women, Brandy Mai, said Patterson was "constructively dismissed," meaning she was forced to resign.
In a press release issued Friday afternoon, Patterson was quoted saying she was "devastated."
“I have 20+ years of experience in EMS and a degree in emergency management. Being Division Chief at BCFES was my ‘forever job.' I worked with amazing professionals who took oaths and dedicated their lives to protecting and saving others. I couldn’t stay silent when I saw high-ranking members of our agency putting personnel and the community at risk. I’m devastated at being forced out, but I hope my voice can help others and keep our community safe,” Patterson said.
Bradbury said it was her duty to come forward, according to the release from Mai.
"I have a duty and responsibility to report things that threaten the safety of our citizens and the fine men and women of BCFES who serve this community. It is every firefighter and officer's job to create an ethical environment that encourages growth while supporting the organizational mission. When those things cease to exist, so do the history, culture, and values of the fire service," Bradbury.
Howell declined comment, but Bryan County Administrator Ben Taylor issued a statement.
“We do not comment publicly on pending litigation or personnel matters,” Taylor said. “We look forward to defending ourselves in a court of law. The Bryan County Emergency Services is comprised of professionals who are dedicated to protecting and caring for the public in emergency situations. Bryan County maintains a zero tolerance policy and prohibition on all forms of discrimination, sexual harassment, and other misconduct in the work place.”
Bradbury’s suit also lists BCFES Training Division Chief Shannon Bancroft as a defendant.
The suits include several allegations by the women, ranging from retaliation to discrimination.
Patterson claims she was retaliated against after she conducted an investigation ordered by Howell in April into a battalion chief, identified in the suit only as “Battalion Chief ‘H’” for reasons ranging from claims of sleeping on the job to failing to respond to emergency calls, and using rank in an effort to get a “domestic partner” out of a Georgia State Patrol traffic ticket, the suit alleges.
Patterson alleges she was told the battalion chief would be demoted, but was instead harassed in a number of ways, such as getting assigned extra duties and seeing someone hired into her department without her knowledge.
Patterson had been with BCFES since 2018 and was division chief of emergency management, EMS and administration.
Both Patterson and Bradbury, a lieutenant in the department, allege Howell and the training chief, Bancroft, in May “manipulated promotion scoring numbers for battalion chief positions to put Bradbury at the bottom of the promotion list.”
That action allegedly followed Bradbury’s forwarding in March of charges brought by firefighters regarding an unnamed lieutenant’s sexual assault and harassment of recruits, missing work and smelling strongly of alcohol while on duty, the suits claim.
That firefighter, identified only as “Lt. ‘T.’” in the lawsuit, was later promoted to a battalion chief position sought by Bradbury, the suit claims,
Bradbury, who was also hired in 2018 and is described in the suit as the first openly gay member of BCFES to seek promotion to battalion chief, alleges she was then harassed to the point of contemplating suicide. Bradbury, who served as an interim battalion chief, the lawsuit said, claims job titles and promotions she was promised were rescinded after she raised the complaints about the lieutenant and took leave for mental health issues the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Bradbury also alleges she was the target of discrimination for being a gay woman and talking openly about her mental health.
The press release sent by Mai listed the allegations with bullet points. They are in italics below.
- Unlawful retaliation and violations of the whistleblower act
- Discrimination in violation of Americans with Disabilities Act
- First Amendment violations
- Civil conspiracy
- Falsifying public records
- Intentional infliction of emotional distress
- Failure to provide a workplace free from sexual assault, harassment, discrimination, retaliation
- Lack of policies and procedures for harassment, discrimination, or retaliation
- Failure to Train
- FMLA Interference
- FMLA Retaliation
Acts of retaliation and discrimination against the plaintiffs included:
- Verbal assault
- Conspiracy to alter testing scores and subsequent denial of promotions
- Rescinding of previously offered employment positions
- Assignment of additional duties
- Removal of previously granted authority
- Creation of a hostile work environment
- Refusal to allow opportunities for recertification
- Constructive discharge (Division Chief Patterson is no longer with BCFES)
The plaintiffs agree that it’s important for the community to understand what happened to them and not jump to conclusions. Both have sacrificed greatly to bring these issues to light.
In addition to allegedly being retaliated against for reporting the two firefighters, both Bradbury and Patterson claim their First Amendment rights were violated and they’ve suffered damage to their professional reputations. They are seeking damages and have asked for jury trials.
Both women also allege BCFES, by not acting on claims, have put the public at risk.
Howell has been chief since 2012 and was named Fire Chief of the Year in 2014 by the Georgia Association of Fire Chiefs.