City of Leduc and firefighters reach settlement in class-action harassment lawsuit

Click to play video: 'City of Leduc and firefighters reach settlement in class-action harassment lawsuit'
City of Leduc and firefighters reach settlement in class-action harassment lawsuit
The City of Leduc has settled a class-action lawsuit involving two women who were firefighters and alleged sexual assault, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. As Morgan Black explains. the plaintiffs' lawyers call it a historic result – Jun 21, 2023

The City of Leduc has agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit that involves two female firefighters who alleged years of sexual assault, harassment and bullying at the fire department.

The women named in the lawsuit, Christa Steele and Mindy Smith, have said they brought their complaints to higher ups but that those were never acted upon.

In September 2022, months after a statement of claim was filed by the plaintiffs, the city filed its defence, denying every allegation made in the claim.

However, on June 21, both parties announced the lawsuit had been settled and a proposed settlement agreement was filed June 20 with the Court of King’s Bench for review and approval by the court on July 4.

“When we set out to bring to light the discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault happening at Leduc, it was so it would stop and those who are responsible for the years of abuse we faced would be held accountable,” said former firefighter Steele.

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“There remains a lot of work to do, but I am relieved that Leduc has finally acknowledged the harm that women suffered in a workplace where women were preyed upon and sexual assault was acceptable and without consequence.”

Steele told Global News on Wednesday that this settlement is bigger than her — and bigger than Leduc.

“Women across Canada have suffered this, not just us. So this fight goes beyond us. This fight is for all the women going through this at fire departments, at EMS departments, at different corporations. This needs to give a voice to them too,” she said.

“We fought. We won the small battle and now let’s band together nationally and send a message that this just doesn’t stand anymore.”

Click to play video: 'Behind the bay doors: City of Leduc firefighters sue for harassment, assault'
Behind the bay doors: City of Leduc firefighters sue for harassment, assault

The law firm that represented the firefighters said: “This is the first settlement of a class action involving sexual misconduct and sexual assault in a fire department or municipality in Canada.

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“The individual compensation in this settlement exceeds that provided by Canada’s most notable workplace harassment class action settlements to date,” a news release from Burnet, Duckworth and Palmer LLP (BD&P) added.

The city says in its proposed settlement agreement that “the range of individual compensation for most class (action) members is between $10,000 and $95,000. Class members who experienced exceptional harm may be eligible for amounts up to $285,000.”

The total amount of the settlement is unknown at this time, lawyer Robert Martz said, as it will depend on how many women come forward.

“Once the settlement is approved, the women will have an opportunity to make a claim. It’s a confidential process that’s done on paper, no interviews or anything like that, and an independent third party will decide where they fit within the different categories and what their compensation would be.”

Click to play video: 'Former Leduc fire chief named in lawsuit involving sex assault allegations'
Former Leduc fire chief named in lawsuit involving sex assault allegations

A statement from Leduc city council said “financial compensation is just one aspect of the settlement.

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“Our focus remains on fostering a culture of accountability, transparency and safety within our community. We are firmly dedicated to learning from the past to prevent such occurrences from happening again.”

The statement said the mediation process was productive and that the two parties reached “a positive and amicable resolution.”

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The firefighters’ lawyers said the terms of the settlement include:

  • Monetary compensation. Each member of the class-action lawsuit is eligible for between $10,000 and $285,000.
  • Lengthy claimant eligibility time period. Any woman who worked at the City of Leduc over the past 20 years is eligible to participate in the class action.
  • Confidential, non-adversarial and non-confrontational claims process meant to facilitate claimant participation and provide a safe way for women to come forward.
  • Non-monetary remedies. A public apology from the mayor of Leduc and a requirement that Leduc take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that no retaliation occurs against women who participate in the class action or who make a claim.

“There’s an opportunity for women to participate in what we’ve called a restorative engagement process, where they can meet privately with leadership at Leduc to explain what’s happened and how things need to change or can change,” Martz explained.

“There’s also requirements for Leduc to consider implementing a whistle-blower policy, to make further changes to its respectful workplace policy that the plaintiffs have flagged.”

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Global News asked the City of Leduc how it will pay for the monetary compensation aspect of the settlement. A spokesperson for the city said those details will be available after the court reviews and approves the proposed settlement at the July 4 hearing.

Global News was also told media would be notified when the mayor’s apology would occur.

“It’s a step towards accountability,” Steele said. “Please understand my skepticism as we wait to see what real change unfolds. The current leadership continues to preside over the city.

“It’s the same people who were aware of the Veritas report and the damning information in (it). It’s crucial right now that we observe the outcomes that emerge.”

Steele hopes this is one step on the way to more meaningful transformation.

“Anybody that’s in this profession, it’s a deep-seated passion and it becomes an identity.

“To cause waves or to raise issues is scary,” she said.

“To be brave enough, to be bold enough to say: ‘No, this is wrong,’ is a really tough thing to do. I understand that. We understand that.

“But this has to stop. It’s not 1980 any more. These boys clubs have to be dismantled and these fire departments have to start implementing and upholding these stringent policies to prioritize the safety of women.”

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Click to play video: 'Leduc firefighter says she endured sexual harassment to keep doing job she loved: ‘It becomes your whole life’'
Leduc firefighter says she endured sexual harassment to keep doing job she loved: ‘It becomes your whole life’

Burnet, Duckworth and Palmer LLP said the compensation amounts, non-adversarial claims process, eligibility window and significant non-monetary remedies make this “one of the most progressive workplace class-action settlement in Canadian history.”

BD&P’s lead lawyer in this case, Martz, believes it will set precedent.

“The goal of the settlement and the case was to get real compensation for the women who had suffered and to affect some real change at Leduc and at fire departments and municipalities across Canada, and I think the settlement does that,” Martz said.

“The legal system needs to evolve to hold employers accountable who tolerate this type of systemic sexual misconduct, and to encourage women who suffer this type of workplace abuse to come forward.”

In its statement, Leduc city council went on to say: “This settlement is a critical step forward in acknowledging the pain and harm caused to the victims, and represents a comprehensive, fair and reasonable resolution.

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“It was through the commitment of both parties to a shared vision of a safe workplace that this settlement was reached so quickly.”

Click to play video: '2 Leduc Fire Services members no longer with department following harassment allegations'
2 Leduc Fire Services members no longer with department following harassment allegations

Both council and city manager Derek Prohar acknowledged the process of rebuilding trust will take time and effort.

“We are fully committed to undertaking the necessary work and engaging in ongoing conversations to ensure that our city becomes a place where everyone feels safe, respected and valued,” council’s statement reads.

“It is important to us that the city resolved this matter in a way that promotes healing, supports the affected parties, and allows us to refocus on our duty to the citizens of Leduc.

“During challenging times like these, it is essential that we come together as a community, supporting one another and working collectively to heal and rebuild trust.”

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“The proposed settlement is a critical step towards accountability, healing and the restoration of trust within our community,” Prohar said in a statement.

“Regretfully, we cannot undo the harm of the sexual misconduct that was experienced, but we are committed to learning from the past to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.”

Click to play video: 'Reports into Leduc Fire Services describes ‘poisoned work environment,’ mishandled complaints'
Reports into Leduc Fire Services describes ‘poisoned work environment,’ mishandled complaints

An independent investigation ordered after the two firefighters came forward with their allegations uncovered a “psychologically unsafe and harmful culture” at Leduc Fire Services, “serious, systemic and long-standing misconduct,” and that management “failed to provide a duty of care to its employees.”

The report was conducted by Veritas Solutions on behalf of the City of Leduc.

Veritas found that: “Over the past several years, the mishandling of serious complaints of sexual assaults and harassment that were not taken seriously or properly investigated has created a hostile or poisoned work environment for some women.”

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The reports state that management discriminated against female employees when complaints were brought forward, and the failure to address the issues left many women worried about retribution — which could include losing their job.

“The management has failed to provide duty of care to their employees, ensuring a safe environment to make complaints and ensure that unwanted/uninvited behaviours do not continue.”

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