Court Dismisses Six Of Seven African-American Firefighters From Lawsuit

A group of seven African-American firefighters brought a lawsuit against the City of Berkeley, Missouri, alleging that their terminations were racially motivated. After the firefighters presented their case to a federal court, the Court granted the City’s motion for “judgment as a matter of law,” ruling that the evidence submitted by the firefighters was insufficient to establish any liability.

The decision of the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upholding all except one of the dismissals illustrates some basic standards that apply in racial discrimination claims.

Some of the claims involved allegations of racial discrimination. In such cases, a claimant is required to show that (1) he belongs to a racial minority; (2) that he applied and was qualified for a job for which the employer was seeking applicants; (3) that despite his qualifications he was rejected; and (4) that, after his rejection, the position remained open and that the employer continued to seek applicants from persons of the complainant’s qualifications.

In racial harassment cases, a complainant is required to show (1) that she belongs to a protected group; (2) and then that she was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) that the harassment was based on race; (4) that the harassment affected a term, condition, or privilege of her employment; and (5) that the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take proper remedial action.

Applying these standards, the Court first turned to the claim of Firefighter Michelle Baptiste. Baptiste asserted a hostile work environment based on allegations that a coworker subjected her to racial harassment. Baptiste contended that her coworker assaulted her and that the City took no real action in response. The Appeals Court dismissed Baptiste’s claim, finding that she produced no evidence on which a jury could have found that the harassment she alleged was “based on race.”

The Court then turned to the claims of Russell Hardy and Quentin Randolph, who were each terminated by the City after testing positive for illegal drug use. At trial, neither Hardy nor Randolph denied using illegal drugs. On appeal, they maintained that the City’s implementation of a drug policy was a disguised form of racial discrimination. The Court rejected this claim, finding that neither Hardy nor Randolph could “overcome the City’s facially legitimate reason for terminating them, their undisputed use of illegal drugs in violation of the City’s zero-tolerance drug policy. To the extent they contend that the drug testing itself was an adverse employment action, they have identified no evidence from which a jury reasonably could have concluded that the drug testing was conducted in a racially discriminatory manner.”

Next up for the Court was the claim for Bilal Olushola, who contended that he was the victim of racial discrimination because he was forced to resign when he could not get a loan from his pension. Rejecting his claim, the Court observed that the standards for proving a “constructive discharge” of the sort alleged by Olushola are very difficult: “A constructive discharge occurs when an employee resigns after the employer has created an intolerable working environment in a deliberate attempt to compel such a resignation.”

The Court found that Olushola presented no evidence of such an intolerable working environment. More particularly, the Court held that “Olushola’s testimony regarding his loan request does not reasonably support a finding that the City took any action with the intent to create an intolerable working environment in order to compel him to resign.”

The Court next addressed the claim of Dwayne Pearson, who was fired by the white Fire Chief. Pearson alleged that the Chief had racial animus against African-American firefighters because, at one point in his career, he had been fired by an African-American city manager. In dismissing Pearson’s claim, the Court observed “the mere fact that an individual was terminated by a person of a racial minority and then subsequently terminated a different person of the same racial minority does not reasonably support an inference that the second termination was motivated by racial animus. In the present case, the evidence showed that the stated reason for Pearson’s termination was the accumulation of accidents involving his operation of Fire Department vehicles.”

The two remaining plaintiffs were probationary firefighters when the City terminated them when it discovered that they had failed to list prior arrests on their written employment applications. As to one of the firefighters, the Court found no evidence of racial discrimination, pointing to the fact that the firefighter produced no evidence that the City had treated non-African-American firefighters in any different fashion when it discovered that they had falsified employment applications.

The second of the two probationary firefighters, Terry Tatum, was alone among the plaintiffs in having his lawsuit survive the appeal. Tatum alleged that after the falsification of his application was discovered, he met with the City Manager and the Human Resources Director, and explained to them that he believed that the disposition of his prior criminal charges would be purged from his criminal record. Tatum testified that the City Manager stated: “This will suffice. And this will no longer be an issue.”

The Court found that this evidence supported an inference that when the Fire Chief subsequently terminated Tatum, that his stated reason for terminating Tatum – falsification of the application – was not his true reason. Thus, the Court ruled that Tatum’s case could continue to proceed.

Tatum v. City of Berkeley, Missouri, 2005 WL 1250506 (8th Cir. 2005).

This article appears in the September 2005 issue