Fire district departure prompts lawsuit

Andrea Meinhart claims sexual discrimination and favoritism forced her out.
Monday, August 7, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:47 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Former financial director of the Boone County Fire Protection District Andrea Meinhart has filed a claim for a wrongful termination lawsuit based on sexual discrimination and might join fellow former district employees in a group settlement, said the Jefferson City lawyer representing her.

The most recent claim was filed by Meinhart, who resigned July 17 under pressure following the discovery of bookkeeping mistakes during the 2005 audit.

Attorney David Moen said Meinhart and other former district employees were treated differently than Assistant Chief Sharon Curry, who received special treatment because of her romantic relationship with Fire Chief Steve Paulsell.

Moen also represents former assistant chief Bruce Piringer, who sued the district last August for wrongful termination, and former chief of staff Rob Brown, who is seeking retirement money he said he never received. Both men based their claims on Paulsell’s favoritism, Moen said.

“All of the claims are along the same lines as discrimination based on sex,” Moen said. “With (Meinhart) being a female, it’s a bit easier to prove.”

The district’s attorney, Jeff Parshall, said none of the claims were valid. He would not explain why.

“It’s much too complicated, and we cannot discuss the facts of the case,” Parshall said. “It would take hours to go through point by point.”

Moen filed wrongful termination, or Title VII, claims for Piringer and Brown with the Missouri Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about six weeks ago and last week did the same for Meinhart.

Filing a Title VII claim is a necessary step in seeking administrative settlement before suing. If the Missouri Human Rights Commission or the employment commission finds the claims are valid, one of those agencies will contact the complainant to begin mediating a settlement between the two parties.

Moen said the employment commission contacted him two weeks ago and asked him if he would be interested in the agency stepping in as mediator between his clients and the fire protection district. Moen said he would be but has not had contact with them since.

Moen said he expects that if the district chooses to settle, it will lump all of the claims together.

The district’s attorney, Parshall, confirmed that claims for Brown and Piringer had been filed but said the employment commission had not contacted the district to set up mediation and that if it does, each claim will be handled separately. Parshall said he had not received a claim from Meinhart.

Board member Shelly Dometrorch said there have been “very preliminary” discussions of setting up mediation sessions in Brown’s case, but that she was unaware of claims by Piringer or Meinhart.

Chairman John Gordon said the board learned of Brown’s Title VII complaint about four to six weeks ago but did not know that Moen’s other clients had filed similar claims. He said he didn’t think he should talk in detail because of possible litigation.

Brown said he doesn’t want his job back and isn’t seeking punitive damages but only compensation for his retirement fund, which he said was mismanaged by Curry.

“From the beginning, Ms. Curry mismanaged my employment agreement and failed to set up my retirement as required in my (employment) agreement,” Brown said in an e-mail sent Saturday. “To date, my retirement accounts are all suspect.”

Brown said Meinhart attempted to fix the problem created by Curry but was told by Paulsell to stop communicating with Brown about Brown’s retirement last fall. Meinhart has not been reachable for comment since July 15.

Curry did not return phone calls. Gale Blomenkamp, the public information officer for the district, said it wouldn’t be appropriate for any employee of the district to comment on legal issues.

Piringer is seeking actual damages under the Title VII claim, citing wrongful termination, a hostile work environment and sex discrimination.

Last August, Piringer sued the district seeking reinstatement to his former job. According to court records, Paulsell asked Piringer if he wanted to keep his job after Piringer forwarded a sexual harassment complaint against Curry by a district employee. This employee is not involved in the Title VII claims. On June 20, 2005, Paulsell called Piringer into his office and offered him $10,000 to quit, an offer Piringer said he turned down, according to court records. He was then asked to leave the district, according to an affidavit in his lawsuit.

Piringer’s argument was that only the board could approve his termination, and board minutes from the June 20 meeting say that the only motion by the board was to offer Piringer a settlement. However, in an affidavit signed by former chairman Willis Smith, the board chairman said “that while the minutes of the meeting may not clearly show said vote, in fact, the board did vote to terminate Bruce Piringer, and it was the decision of the board to do so.”

Piringer’s initial claim was rejected by Boone County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Roper, but Moen said the board has filed a counter claim that Piringer owes the district the $10,000 they say they paid him before he rejected the severance offer. Moen said it has come to a standstill as neither party has pursued litigation.

After the decision, Piringer said he calculated that the district owed him about $21,500, or three months of his annual salary. However, since more time has elapsed, Piringer said he is seeking more.

“I was planning on working there until I was 65,” said Piringer, who hasn’t worked for the past year except for teaching firefighting part time. “We haven’t come up with a figure ... I’m willing to leave the amount of actual and punitive damages up to a jury.”

Moen said he has two more fire district clients — former volunteer battalion chiefs Jerry Jenkins and Todd Burke — who also have filed Title VII claims, but because they were volunteers, they may not qualify. Sexual discrimination is also the basis for their claims.

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