Wednesday, March 15, 2006

You know you're a nerdy law student when you spend the whole day thinking about official immunity...

And it's out of your own free will.
This morning I stumbled across a story in the Mpls Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press. The Strib version is here. The version from across the river is here. By the time I post this, the story will likely have been covered elsewhere but this is what I read so I'm going to limit my comments to what I absorbed from these articles.

By way of summary, for those of you read on before reading the links (for shame!), the Fire Chief in my hometown is a lesbian. Her name is Bonnie Bleskachek, and she is one of the first openly gay fire chiefs in the nation.... maybe the first. Bleskachek's former partner, Jennifer Cornell, brought suit in federal court today against Bleskachek for a continuing pattern of on the job hostility. In addition to living with and raising children with Bleskachek, Cornell was also a firefighter and worked under her. Cornell claims that Bleskachek physically assaulted and beat her. In addition to this violence, Bleskachek used her position of power to abuse her in their workplace as well.

A few things sparked my interest in this story. For one thing, it is an example of domestic violence in the workplace, an area in which the effects of domestic violence are rarely explored in the news. It is also unlike the employment-related DV cases I've heard about before, where an abuser sabotages their partner's attempts to work outside the home, destroys job related materials, or beats their partner up so they can't make it into work. Instead, this story illustrates how the workplace could, quite literally, be another site where an abuser with supervisory control over their partner could find new ways to flex power and inflict harm. Obviously, this is also a case involving (at least allegations of) same-sex partner abuse. While oft-cited stats show that abuse happens about as often in same-sex relationships as in opposite-sex relationships, I get the sense that domestic violence cases involving same-sex partners are more rare. This is just a guess, but I imagine, backed by some reading I've done on the topic, that my hunch might be accurate due to a couple of factors. First, there may be reluctance to draw attention to problems within the community. Or reluctance to draw attention to the existence of a same-sex relationship in the first place. There's also the likelihood of bias, or disbelief, in the courts.

Along with these observations, what really surprised me about this story was how there was in this case, an apparent federal cause of action in an individual case against an alleged abuser. I speculate that this suit must be a Section 1983 claim, though none of the articles covering this story actually state the cause of action. Since I'm guessing that this is a Section 1983 case, I'm also assuming that Bleskacheck was sued in her official capacity. The most recent update on the story says that the suit also lists the city and the Fire Dept as defendants so I imagine that my guess is on point. While the case has elements of employment discrimination, those allegations seem rooted the in the domestic violence that underlies the whole situation.

I discussed this with my friend Snoopy, a fellow fed courts student last semester and DV clinic participant. Both of us found this situation to be quite unique. There have been DV cases in federal court before. The only ones that come to mind though involve VAWA or suits against municipal governments for failure to enforce restraining orders (i.e., Castle Rock, though I think this suit originated in CO State Court). Snoops, who recalls fed courts in quite a bit more detail than I do, wondered whether Bleskacheck would be able to assert official immunity. That doctrine is over my head to a large extent and way too complicated for me to delve into here, but suffice it to say, it seems possible that if she's not found to have acted in her official capacity, it will be tough to prove liability. Until today I hadn't considered this nexus between liability for actions taken in an official capacity against an employee which happen to constitute abuse against a domestic partner. Probably this is because it's relatively rare for spouses to supervise spouses at work??

In any event, this whole situation is really sad. The violence mentioned in the article is horrible and heartbreaking. I'm really curious to see how this case was pleaded and hope to provide further updates as things progress. Regardless of what happens in this suit, I guess I hope that it will result in increased awareness about the widespread and devastating impact of domestic violence in employment. That's undoubtedly wishful thinking.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sure sounds like classic abuse of power that we usually see attached to men in charge and abusive men in relationships. It's a rotten shame that her actions smear the hard work of all women in all non-traditional fields. Shame on her - she worked too hard to get where she is, or did she?