Top-ranked woman firefighter says she was harassed, demoted in NC discrimination suit

Hayley Fowler

Joy Ponder was the first woman to become a division chief at the Asheville Fire Department in Western North Carolina, according to court filings.

But after five years in the position, Ponder said she was suddenly demoted. Now she’s suing.

Ponder accused the city of Asheville of discriminating against her in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after the fire chief demoted her to a desk job, yelled at her and treated her with extreme hostility, according to a civil complaint filed in federal court earlier this month.

The allegations aren’t new. Ponder filed a civil suit citing similar grievances in Buncombe Superior Court in November 2019, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

She also filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the gatekeepers to discrimination charges in federal court — around the same time, court filings state. The EEOC issued Ponder a right-to-sue notice on Aug. 20, which prompted the most recent litigation.

A representative from the city of Asheville and an attorney for Ponder did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ request for comment Wednesday.

But according to the complaint filed Nov. 17, the alleged discrimination at the Asheville Fire Department dates to at least 2016.

Ponder has worked for the department since 1998, the complaint states. She was reportedly promoted to Division Chief for the Department’s A-Shift in August 2014, becoming the first female at the department to hold the high-ranking position.

As division chief, Ponder said she oversaw 75 firefighters and operations at all 12 fire stations.

But the complaint alleges the fire department routinely discriminated against her after she was promoted — from failing to recognize her work on a scientific study published in a peer-reviewed journal to barring her from wearing her uniform when she testified in front of the North Carolina legislature.

Ponder’s attorney also said the department failed to replace her staff vehicle with a pickup truck that other male officers received — despite Ponder having recovered from breast cancer and needing the safer upgrade, which allowed for “less potential carcinogen exposure,” the lawsuit states.

She reportedly had her desk taken from her in 2018 and replaced with a “less desirable” one that had the name of another male employee on it.

Ponder was also removed from a development class and replaced with a male colleague, according to the complaint. Though she continued to attend the classes, the department reportedly refused to issue her a certificate of completion.

Ponder said she never received a bad performance review throughout her 21-year career at the department.

But in June 2019, the complaint states Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette told Ponder she would be “involuntarily transferred” from her position as division chief to an administrative job in which she no longer supervised firefighters and operations but was instead responsible for the department’s “strategic plan.”

Ponder would also be under the chief’s “close supervision” in her new role, according to the lawsuit.

“This involuntary and adverse transfer was the most recent and the culmination of a series of harassing, hostile and discriminatory acts that had been directed at Ponder by Chief Burnette and other male members of the senior management of the Asheville Fire Department,” the lawsuit states.

The chief is accused of frequently yelling at Ponder and forcing her into meetings with another male supervisor where the two “would berate her and attempt to intimidate her,” the complaint states.

“On one occasion, Burnette waited for Ponder in a darkened parking garage where he suddenly approached her and begin speaking harshly to her,” her attorney said in the lawsuit. “Another fire officer who happened to witness this event later expressed concern for her well-being due to this event.”

Ponder and other female employees of the Asheville Police Department reportedly filed grievances with the city over Burnette’s leadership in 2019, but the complaint alleges no report was ever made available following an outside investigation.

The alleged hostility forced Ponder to temporarily leave her job in late 2019 under the Family and Medical Leave Act, her attorney said.

But when Ponder returned she was reportedly “fearful and afraid to leave her office area due to the unpredictable and irrational behavior of Chief Burnette toward her,” the lawsuit states. Ponder retired in June, citing a worsening medical condition “due to the working conditions that I was subject to,” the Asheville Citizen-Times reported.

The lawsuit accuses the city of Asheville and its fire department of violating the Civil Rights Act as well as intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Ponder is seeking a $300,000 judgment, damages, pre- and post-judgment damages and attorneys’ fees.

Attorneys for the city have not yet responded to the complaint, court filings show.