A lawsuit alleging sex discrimination in the Pierz Fire Department has ended in a negotiated settlement.
The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in May 2006. At issue was Jill Poepping's bid to be the city's first female firefighter. In 2003, Poepping was the first woman to apply to be a firefighter with the part-time department. Poepping said her application was rejected in 2003 and again in 2005 and she believed her gender was the reason behind the rejections.
The city continues to say gender was not the reason Poepping didn't get the job. The city reached a financial settlement with Poepping and her attorney for $60,000. The settlement includes an offer to Poepping to become a Pierz Fire Department firefighter upon completion of the standard physical and psychological evaluation. The city is currently involved in a hiring process to add as many as five or six people to its 26-member fire department. The department has one female firefighter, the lawsuit stated, who was hired after Poepping began legal proceedings.
Mike DeRosia, Pierz city administrator, said the city was pleased the matter was resolved.
"The most exciting part for me is going to be able to reach my goal of being a firefighter and that was my goal from the beginning," Poepping said, adding her lawsuit was not about the money.
Poepping said after her application was rejected in 2003 she paid for her own firefighter training and worked for the DNR as a wildland firefighter. She returned for the 2005 hiring process and was rejected again. Poepping said she believes her gender was the reason she wasn't originally hired and the settlement speaks for itself.
"It was very clear they were holding me to a different standard than they were holding other members to," she said.
Poepping, who is in her last semester for law enforcement at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, recently made the dean's list for academic honors and is confident in her ability to pass firefighter requirements. Poepping said she already passed law enforcement evaluations for agility and psychology and hopes to work with the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Department soon.
She said she received support from Pierz firefighters and believes any issue with her gender was limited to a few individuals and not the overall department, which she described as having good, dedicated members.
"I've gotten a lot of support from the guys on the department and that's why I fought so hard to be there," she said. "It was hard to have somebody stand in my way of reaching my goals when I knew I was the kind of person that could do this.
"You don't let anyone tell you what you are and what you can't be. I think you have to find that within yourself. I was focused on my goal as a firefighter. For me it was more about the position than anything. I'm so excited. I can't wait to be on the department completing my goal of being a firefighter."
In her lawsuit, Poepping claimed some male firefighters handed out business cards with their names and this motto: "Pierz Fire Department ... fires extinguished; mountains moved; oceans drained; storms and other natural disasters stopped; virgins converted, lions captured, tamed and bred; cobras, wolverines and women housebroken."
Patricia Beety, an attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities who is representing Pierz, said the cards were not official and that issue has been addressed by the city. Beety said the city's position has consistently been that Poepping's gender was not a factor in the city's refusal to hire her as a firefighter.
Beety said Pierz took the same position in an earlier gender discrimination claim by Poepping with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a claim the agency dismissed.
"When Ms. Poepping meets her eligibility requirements, she will be matched with a mentor who will oversee her training," the city reported in a written statement. "The parties acknowledge their differences, but express a desire to end continued and costly litigation and to begin a future focused on healing relationships and strengthening the public's confidence in a strong and efficient fire department."
(This story contains information from the Associated Press)
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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