Changing Bathroom Locks Averts Fire Department Discrimination Claim

In 2002, 204 firefighters and a group known as the Vulcan Pioneers of New Jersey brought claims alleging race and gender discrimination in the workplace of the Newark, New Jersey Fire Department. By 2008, only two firefighters remained in the lawsuit, and were appealing the dismissal of their claims to the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Court’s decision focused on the claims of Jacqueline Jones, an African-American woman who began her service as a firefighter with the Department in 1981 and retired in 2006. Jones, who was promoted to captain in 1989, claimed that she was denied field position assignments and “left to linger in administrative and office positions” as a result of race discrimination. As a result, she contended, she was continuously ineligible for career advancement. Jones also contended that she was the victim of discrimination because she was not provided with separate restroom facilities.

The appeals court dismissed Jones’ claims. With regard to the restrooms, the Court found “there is no evidence that the situation was a municipal policy obviously in violation of Jones’ constitutional rights or that one could reasonably find that Department officials were deliberately indifferent to the need for action. A former department director testified that while the fire houses did not have separate facilities, he did have all the locks changed on the bathroom door so Jones could have privacy, no matter where she went. Indeed, Jones concedes that at one point, when the locks were improperly installed, ‘the chief came and found out, and he ordered them to change the locks.’”

The Court also found that “Jones’ claims of discrimination regarding her failure to be promoted to battalion chief are similarly flawed. There is no evidence of a custom or policy motivated by discrimination that caused her to be denied for promotion; rather, that decision was the result of a failing examination score. Although Jones complains that she was assigned to non-field positions and, therefore, could not obtain required field experience necessary for the battalion chief position, there is no evidence that she was given those assignments for discriminatory, rather than personnel, reasons. Moreover, she was eventually assigned to a field position, and obtained sufficient field credit to sit for the battalion chief examination, which she failed.”

Vulcan Pioneers Of New Jersey v. The City of Newark, 2010 WL 1226345 (3d Cir. 2010).

This article appears in the May 2010 issue