EUGENE, OR – A Eugene firefighter has received $285,000 to settle her lawsuit accusing city fire department officials of discriminating against her on the basis of sex and “perceived disability” when she returned to work after receiving a heart pacemaker in 2008.
Carolyn McCann’s suit also alleges that the city retaliated against her for making a worker’s compensation claim in connection with an off-duty incident in which her heart stopped in 2007.
McCann, now 43, said Monday that she felt the city tried to punish her and force her to quit after a cardiologist cleared her to return to all firefighting duties following the implantation of the device, which uses electrical impulses to regulate heart rhythm.
The city of Eugene “was not prepared to bring her back to work as a firefighter, based on what (Eugene Fire Department) Deputy Chief of Operations Karen Brack admitted in the lawsuit was her own ‘ignorance’ about pacemakers,” McCann’s lawyer, Jennifer Middleton, said in a statement released Monday. “Instead, Eugene Fire & EMS officials restricted McCann from firefighter facilities, allowed her only light-duty activities, barred her from training to prepare for a full return, and subjected her to additional, unnecessary medical exams.”
They did so even when the city’s medical adviser concurred with McCann’s doctor, according to Middleton.
“They required her to prove herself in every aspect of firefighting taught in the entire first year probationary program and more, and then to complete a ‘final exam’ skills demonstration that included cutting up a car without back-up — something that firefighters are not even called upon to do in the field,” the attorney wrote.
Fire Chief Randy Groves issued his own statement Monday, saying his department handled McCann’s back-to-work process “in a reasonable and responsible way given the unique circumstances.”
“The city has an obligation to protect the affected employee, the community and our other firefighters when a returning employee is off work for an extended period of time, in this case 18 months, after experiencing a significant medical event,” he said.
Groves and City Attorney Glenn Klein said the city was prepared to go to trial in the case, and that the city’s “excess insurance carrier” made the call to instead settle the claim. “That carrier, not the city, is paying the cost and agreed to settle based on purely financial reasons despite the city’s recommendation to proceed and defend its position in court,” Groves said.
The involvement of the firm, Everest National Insurance Co. of New Jersey, was unusual, according to city liability and property claims manager Cathy Joseph. The company based its decision on several factors, Joseph said — including the fact that Everest would have had to reimburse the city’s court costs even if they won at trial. “The city of Eugene did not wish to settle the matter, did not participate in the settlement, and did not contribute to the settlement,” Joseph said.
The settlement awards McCann $50,000 in damages for emotional distress, with the remaining $235,000 going to her attorney fees.
The city could have avoided nearly all of the latter cost, McCann said, had it settled her case in 2010, when the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries investigated her claims and found substantial evidence of sex and disability discrimination. But the city refused to do so then unless McCann gave up her job — something she said she was unwilling to do on principle.
“Firefighting is who I am, and I worked hard to get here,” McCann said in a statement about her position as one of a handful of female firefighters in a department of about 160. “After I got my pacemaker, it felt like an enormous kick in the gut that the city didn’t want to put me back to work and made me prove myself as if I were a brand new recruit — only worse.”
Once she passed the return-to-duty regimen, McCann said, fire department managers refused to reassign her to the “B Shift” crew that she’d been a part of for eight years before the cardiac incident. Instead, they assigned her to the “C Shift,” which meant working with the firefighters and medics who had responded to her home the night her heart stopped.
“They had seen me at the most vulnerable point in my life,” she said in an interview Monday.
Two of McCann’s fellow firefighters, her union representatives in the matter, disputed in court documents the city’s claim that her return-to-duty regimen was reasonable.
Capt. Joe Siebert called it “staggeringly excessive.” Capt. Sven Wahlroos called it “hogwash” and a “pencil whipping.”
McCann was eventually diagnosed with “autonomic dysfunction,” a condition typically seen in highly fit athletes with unusually slow resting heart rates, Middleton said in her statement.
At the time of her cardiac incident, McCann had been training to participate in the Seattle Firefighter Stair Climb, in which off-duty firefighters ascend the 69-story Columbia Center in full gear to raise money for the Leukemia-Lymphoma Foundation.
McCann’s doctors believed her cardiac incident may have been triggered by a virus contracted at work, Middleton said. McCann won a state worker’s compensation claim in connection with the cardiac incident, but the city is appealing that decision. A clause in the federal lawsuit settlement allows her to still pursue that claim.