Federal Judge Denies Request For Injunction, Independent Review In Firefighter’s Lawsuit

Afederal judge Monday denied a Lincoln firefighter’s request to order the city of Lincoln to initiate disciplinary proceedings against a fire captain and prohibit him from being sent to fires while it’s being conducted.

Amanda Benson’s attorney, Kelly Brandon, said despite multiple complaints from Benson about Capt. Shawn Mahler’s conduct over the past several years, the city and Lincoln Fire & Rescue administration have refused to discipline him.

In a request for an injunction, Benson alleged Mahler “abandoned” her team in a warehouse fire in April in retaliation for her reporting him four days earlier for allegedly disparaging her to another firefighter.

“Plaintiff is engaged in a dangerous profession where teamwork is absolutely critical,” Brandon said.

In a 14-page order Monday, Senior U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said according to the record Mahler, a captain, and Benson, an acting captain, were operating in a peer capacity at the fire, both assigned to help with ventilation that consisted of opening an overhead door.

The incident commander hadn’t designated Mahler a group supervisor. 

“No members of plaintiff’s or Mahler’s crew considered any action by Mahler to be abandoning them in an environment immediately dangerous to life or health,” he said, citing affidavits.

Benson reported no issues to the safety officer on scene that day, but later filed an internal complaint, followed by a court filing saying that Mahler had ignored her when she asked him several times how her crew could help with ventilation.

She said when she and her crew followed Mahler inside to get direction, he suddenly walked away, abandoning her crew “without communication or direction on how or where to proceed.”

According to the order, Mahler said he didn’t believe he had ignored or avoided interacting with Benson or any of her crew that day. No one in Benson’s crew saw it.

“If any captain felt that the environment at the incident was putting any of their crew in jeopardy, then that captain had the responsibility to safely exit the structure with the crew and immediately contact the (incident commander) under LFR management policies,” Kopf said. 

An LFR administrative officer found no merit to Benson’s allegations, and in June, the Firefighters Union Local 644, which represents LFR firefighters including Benson, submitted a grievance to Fire Chief David Engler requesting a “thorough and honest investigation” and discipline of employees who breached rules of conduct. 

The City Attorney’s Office hired Torrey Gerdes of the Baylor Evnen Law Firm to conduct an independent investigation, which hasn’t yet been completed. 

Kopf said rather than awaiting the outcome of the grievance process, two days later, Benson filed the motion for preliminary injunction seeking to impose directives upon LFR about whom it should discipline, send to fires and to investigate — issues in which federal courts should not be involved.

And he denied the motion.

In 2018, Benson sued, alleging that the city turned a blind eye to complaints about a hostile work environment, exonerated employees who contributed to it and failed to take steps to fix it.

The lawsuit followed two others by then-Capts. Brian Giles and Troy Hurd, alleging they faced retaliation for reporting harassment of female firefighters.

In 2019, a federal jury awarded Hurd $1.1 million. The judgment later was reduced by a judge, and the city agreed to pay Hurd $600,000 to avoid a second trial.

Last year, the city agreed to pay Giles $280,000 to settle his lawsuit.

From www.journalstar.com