Former firefighter-paramedic files claim alleging gender discrimination
The former fire rescue employee's wrongful termination claim alleges she was unfairly singled out for her gender and social media use
According to EMS industry law firm Page, Wolfberg & Wirth, there are two questions an EMS agency should ask before deciding whether to take disciplinary action or terminate an employee for a social media post. Read more.
Daily Inter Lake, Kalispell, Mont.
KALISPELL, Mont. — A former Evergreen Fire Rescue firefighter/paramedic has filed a wrongful termination claim alleging she was fired because of her gender and singled out by the department for her social media use.
In her complaint filed Jan. 2 with the Montana Human Rights Bureau, Presley Pritchard alleged she also suffered multiple instances of sexual harassment during her nearly three-year career with Evergreen and was asked to take down social media posts showing her in workout and firefighter gear, while others in the department faced no such recourse.
She is seeking compensation for lost wages, time, money and emotional stress that has caused her to seek medical treatment, documents show.
“… Several male employees in the department have photos of themselves in uniforms and turnouts in front of fire trucks and at the department on their social media accounts,” Pritchard’s complaint states. “Importantly, Evergreen Fire Department does not have a social media policy and never has. I was directly targeted due to how I looked in my gym attire at a public gym.”
Prior to her termination, the department issued Pritchard verbal and then written warnings that she had utilized taxpayer resources for her own benefit, posted a photo taken at the scene of an accident and refused to take down posts depicting Evergreen Fire equipment and resources when asked to do so.
According to a disciplinary letter titled “Written Corrective Counseling,” Pritchard’s actions on social media violated two policies — the first being that when representing Evergreen Fire to the community, employees must not “engage in any conduct which would disparage Evergreen,” according to policy 3.1.
The department also alleged Pritchard violated a second policy that forbid employees from using Evergreen facilities for personal gain. The warning alleges she took promotional photos at the department that were later used to sell T-shirts online.
Pritchard was warned in the write-up that she would be terminated within five days if she had not removed all Evergreen Fire-related content from her personal social media pages. Pritchard was also demoted from a seasonal part-time firefighter/paramedic to part time as-needed.
“I was asked to remove all my posts from social media even though there was no social media policy at EFR,” she wrote in the complaint.
After taking a five-week medical leave to undergo surgery, Pritchard returned to work and was fired that same day, Aug. 15, 2019. She alleges the department let her go because she had failed to take down the aforementioned posts within the five day time-frame.
Chief Craig Williams issued a statement on the matter in late December, explaining the district employs a “diverse staff … of which nearly half are female” and has “established policies and procedures to address complaints.
“The District takes very seriously all allegations it receives concerning workplace conditions,” Williams wrote. “While the Complainant never made or reported any allegations to the District while she was employed, the District hired an independent investigator to complete an investigation concerning the validity of the complaints. After a thorough investigation, no evidence was found to support any of the Complainant’s allegations.”
Pritchard stated an investigator contacted her, but she was never interviewed, and instead referred that individual to her lawyer.
The district declined to offer further comment.
Pritchard is a self-described social media influencer who has 84,900 followers of her account, @presleykp.fit on Instagram. During her tenure at Evergreen Fire, her content consisted primarily of images of herself in firefighting or paramedic gear, along with shots and videos of her working out. The type of dress she’s pictured in varies — from a swimsuit or sports bra, to fully clothed in a baggy firefighting outfit. Many of the posts are paired with inspirational, body-positive messages. A post from Sept. 13 states: “When you love yourself, you glow from the inside. You attract people who love, respect and appreciate your energy.”
She also earns money from specific postings where she is shown with a supplement or wearing apparel from her sponsors.
Evergreen Fire District Board member Jack Fallon first raised concern over Pritchard’s social media posts the summer of 2018 when he forwarded board members an email from a “concerned taxpayer” regarding Pritchard’s Instagram content. Fallon expressed his own worries that her content could impact the passage of a mill levy for new equipment and better wages and benefits for a 10-year period. Voters rejected a proposal that sought a 70.63 mill increase that would have yielded about $1.15 million the first year. Thereafter the levy would have increased by 3 percent each year to adjust for inflation. A second levy request for 37.72 mills over 10 years passed in March 2019 with 1,060 votes in favor of the levy and 868 against.
The fire department board discussed the matter during their July 2, 2018, board meeting after Fallon sent the email, which included a selection of Pritchard’s photos, meeting minutes show.
One photo was a comparison shot with side-by-side images of Pritchard in a bikini, taken about a year apart, while others showed her on the job in uniform or in form-fitting fitness apparel.
“My point is ‘work is work’ and ‘personal is personal,’” Fallon wrote in a June 21, 2018, email to the other board members. “The two environments are separate and should not be mixed. It keeps life simple!”
Board Chairman Brodie Verworn authored a reply in Pritchard’s favor, noting that Pritchard’s appearance and side work as a fitness model had no bearing on how she did her job at Evergreen Fire Rescue.
“You can agree or not agree with how this individual dresses or poses, but it is her right to do so,” Verworn wrote in an email.
Pritchard was in attendance at the July meeting to defend her social media usage, then stating, “I use my fitness account on Instagram as a way to portray a healthy lifestyle that is easy for others to understand, follow and hopefully inspire them to make healthy, beneficial changes in their lives.”
She felt she was being subjected to sexual discrimination for her posts to be called out, while content from other employees of the department, including male members, was not, the complaint shows.
“All the other guys were also posting photos … of them at training or whatever,” Pritchard said.
After much back and forth discussion, Fallon suggested that perhaps it was time to create a social media policy, as none existed at the time, meeting minutes show. According to the July meeting minutes, it was agreed that the board and fire chief would create a social media policy for the department — “a top priority here in the immediate future” — and put it out to members of the department for review. Fallon later confirmed that no social media policy had been developed.
“I’m going to say procrastination,” Fallon said. “This could even be a failure on the trustees of not following up and making sure, ‘hey where’s this at?’ There could be two sides to that one.”
Fallon later explained the board was waiting for this issue to be resolved before putting one in place.
Following the discussion at the meeting, Pritchard continued to share both fitness and firefighting-related content on her Facebook and Instagram pages.
“Nothing happened after that. They [Evergreen Fire] kind of just swept it under the rug. Nobody said anything, nobody did anything. They’re like, ‘you’re fine, whatever,’” Pritchard told the Daily Inter Lake. “I never was told, ‘don’t post anymore.’ I just continued what I was doing.”
Pritchard’s content includes many images taken outside of Evergreen Fire, in public gyms or outdoors, where she is shown in fitness attire. She earns money from these postings from sponsors like 1UP Nutrition, Nine Line Apparel and Herbstrong.
When she was demoted to as-needed status, Pritchard was accused of making money off of Evergreen Fire Department from her sponsors in the fitness industry. However, Pritchard later obtained letters from each company that each confirm she has never received monetary compensation for her firefighting posts, only for images that show a sponsor’s product.
“We do not pay for any post outside of 1UP Nutrition,” 1UP Manager Hanser Aparicio wrote in a Sept. 5 letter, which contained verbage similar to the other two sponsor letters. “Any content outside of 1UP Nutrition has no monetary gain from us.”
The same write-up also alleged she had posted a photo taken at the scene of an accident.
“I denied this and stated it was taken at training. [The officer] would not listen to me and assumed this was on the scene of an incident even though it was just a photo of me sitting on a truck with nothing in the background,” the complaint states. “He had no proof this was on an incident or accident ... and decided to write me up anyway.”
She further alleges that while her social media content has been highly criticized, other members of the department have posted questionable content without recourse. Pritchard pointed to one alleged Facebook post where an Evergreen Fire Rescue employee alluded to acts of violence as a solution to immigration issues.
“We need a wall and an unused mass grave in front of it,” the individual wrote in the alleged post.
Screenshots of the post were provided to the Daily Inter Lake, however the user’s account has since been made private, preventing verification of the content.
In her complaint to the Montana Human Rights Bureau, Pritchard alleged that she was spoken to numerous times by officers in the department about concerns related her social media posts, but initially was not asked to remove them or change them.
However as time progressed, that changed.
On Feb. 27, 2018, Pritchard was called to speak with department officers about a post they considered “inappropriate” of her in uniform and later, on April 15, 2019, was written up for reportedly using Evergreen Fire facilities to sell T-shirts, the complaint states. It alleges Pritchard violated a departmental policy that prevents employees from using its facilities for personal gain.
But Pritchard alleged department higher-ups gave her mixed signals — granting her permission to take the photos, and then weeks later, disciplining her for that same act.
“I designed and paid for ‘Firefight Like a Girl’ T-shirts which I planned to sell on my fitness website. I asked permission of [a supervisor] days prior to come into the department and take photos on my time off,” the complaint states. “[He] stated I had permission and his only request was ‘try not to get the logo’ of [Evergreen Fire Rescue].”
In April 2019, she found a letter that had been sent to the wrong printer, stating concerns about Pritchard using her turnouts and the facilities to sell T-shirts on social media. She “immediately” replaced the photos in question upon realizing the department had an issue with them, documents show.
She was later demoted for these same images, allegedly by the individual who first gave her permission to take them.
Pritchard further alleged other members of the department use the facilities for their personal gain, such as working on and washing their personal vehicles, with no issue.
Before Pritchard was fired, she underwent a breast augmentation surgery in early July and alleges she was sexually discriminated against because of the type of surgery she had. Prior to her surgery, Pritchard was told she could come directly back to work once it was over, the complaint states. She brought in a doctor’s note that stated she was on lifting restrictions for five weeks and at that point, was told she could not work at all.
“I was told by [an officer] that I actually couldn’t work at all and he had ‘made a mistake.’ [The officer] stated if it was ‘not a breast augmentation but another work-related injury or pregnancy,’ that I could work with lifting restrictions,” she alleges in the complaint. At this time, another coworker informed Pritchard the department announced the opening of “permanent positions with better pay and benefits by email.”
“I had not received this email,” she wrote.
On her first scheduled day after surgery, Aug. 15, 2019, Pritchard was let go.
“At this time, I was fired, ‘because I didn’t delete any of my posts within five days,’ referring to something told to me back in April 2019. I asked why they had been purposefully malicious in waiting 6+ weeks because I could have been searching for another job,” the complaint alleges.
Pritchard filed a grievance with the department to appeal her termination and subsequently applied for unemployment with the state of Montana. On Dec. 20, 2019, she received notice that her appeal had been denied.
Pritchard also alleged she has yet to receive any unemployment money from the department, which has appealed her request for benefits multiple times. On each occasion, the Montana Department of Labor and Industry found in Pritchard’s favor, ruling that Pritchard was fired for her social media use — not for any kind of misconduct — and was thus eligible to receive unemployment benefits.
“An intentional disregard of your obligation to your employer has not been established,” stated a Sept. 6, 2019 letter from the Department of Labor. “Therefore, your discharge was not for misconduct under Montana Code Annotated.”
During the Oct. 7, 2019, Evergreen Fire Rescue board meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss the grievance filed by Pritchard. Upon returning to public session, the board announced they had decided to hire an independent investigator to look into the matter.
“It’s not somebody local. They brought somebody in from elsewhere. No ties to the department at all,” Fallon said later.
In late December, he confirmed the department’s investigation had been completed and Chief Williams wrote in his statement that no evidence to support Pritchard’s allegations had been found.
Pritchard’s attorney, Santana N. Caballero, wrote in a Dec. 20 email that now that the complaint has been filed, a state investigator will be assigned to Pritchard’s case to review evidence and speak with “all witnesses and the parties.” The investigator will issue their findings, and if either party is unhappy with the outcome, they can request a hearing.
“Timelines vary in every case due to multiple reasons,” Caballero wrote. “Sometimes they resolve relatively quickly and other times, they can take more than a year or two.”
©2020 the Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.)