Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Former Erie firefighter wins lawsuit against city
By LISA THOMPSON, Erie Times-News
The city of Erie fired Mary Wolski more than four years ago, saying her decision to set a small fire in a bathtub during a suicide attempt made her unfit to be an Erie firefighter.
Eight federal jurors drawn from throughout northwestern Pennsylvania looked at the fire, at Wolski, and her spotless 10-year career and unanimously ruled Monday that the city violated the law and Wolski's rights.
With that finding in hand -- the city discriminated against Wolski in violation of the Americans with Disability Act -- U.S. Judge Sean J. McLaughlin immediately ordered the remedy: Wolski, he said, will get her job back, with seniority intact, as soon as the next available position is open.
She will receive back pay for her time off the job and any pay she would have earned from Monday until the time she is rehired, he said.
The amount of her back pay, which had been previously negotiated between the parties, McLaughlin said, is expected to be put on the court record today.
Assistant City Solicitor Gerald Villella argued Wolski, 49, should not be rehired even with the verdict in her favor because it would be a blow to the bureau's morale.
McLaughlin cautioned that Wolski's return to work should serve as an occasion of pride. Wolski, the city's first female firefighter, he said, "clawed" her way back from death's door and is ready to serve again. The facts showed that she was a dedicated employee with a spotless record, he said. He noted she attempted suicide by smoke inhalation and deliberately set the fire in the tub to minimize damage to the property or others, he said.
Villella said the city would explore an appeal. He faulted the judge for approving a change in the jury's instructions on Monday.
"It is the first time a firefighter has started a fire and gotten her job back," he said.
Wolski said she was "thrilled" with the verdict. The case required her to air publicly a painful time in her life, the severe depression triggered by the slow death of her mother in 2005.
"It has been a long and ugly road for everybody," she said. "Hopefully, I can get back to doing the job I love."
She said she hopes her case helps the city and other employers better understand the ADA.
Key to the jury's deliberations was whether discrimination in part or altogether motivated the city's decision to fire Wolski.
Wolski's lawyer, Paul Susko, credited the verdict to the ample evidence that city officials weighed factors other than the fire -- namely fears that Wolski's depression would recur -- when it decided to fire her.