St. Louis Fire Chief Refuses To Use Promotional List, Loses Job

Sherman George began his employment in 1967 with the St. Louis Fire Department, and in 1999 became the first African-American to serve as the City’s fire chief. The Department is under the Department of Public Safety. The fire chief is appointed by and reports directly to the director of public safety, who is appointed by and reports directly to the mayor.

Promotions within the City’s civil service system, including the Fire Department, are based on merit and fitness and originate from the Department of Personnel. Candidates for promotion must successfully complete a competitive examination containing multiple components.

The City received ten testing proposals in 2003. The Director of Personnel chose to implement one that George disfavored. Specifically, George felt that this particular test lacked a sufficient “assessment center.” Despite George’s dissent, the personnel director administered the exam and sent George a list of successful candidates in April 2004. In June, the Director of Public Safety instructed him to move forward with promotions. George initially agreed but then expressed concern about racial discrimination in the test.

No one had been promoted in the Fire Department in five years. Instead, as was common practice, City firefighters would frequently “ride out of title,” meaning they served informally in a rank higher than their appointed rank in order to fill temporary needs. Thus, a private served as captain and a captain as battalion chief on an acting basis, with all the added responsibility but none of the vetting or additional compensation. These circumstances caused George’s superiors to express concern about low morale in the Department, waning public confidence, and potential liability.

In July 2007, the mayor delivered a letter urging George to proceed with promotions. On September 5, the Director of Public Safety formally ordered George to fill all vacancies by September 14 or be subject to disciplinary action. George interviewed eligible candidates but refused to make any promotions, claiming that he was unable to determine from the test results whether the candidates were qualified. The director then demoted George to the position of deputy fire chief, and George retired shortly thereafter.

George challenged the City’s actions, claiming he was “constructively discharged” and that he was the victim of race discrimination. The Missouri Court of Appeals rejected George’s lawsuit.

The Court observed that “in support of his claim of racial discrimination, George extracts portions of the record in which his superiors acknowledge and attempt to address a long history of racial tensions in the fire department. But to label as racial discrimination their awareness of and response to the problem is to mischaracterize the evidence. The mayor’s letter illuminates the dilemma. In it he sympathizes with George being torn between opposing groups, namely a group of African-American firefighters on one hand, continuing to dispute the validity of the promotions exam, and members of Local 73, a union of primarily white firefighters, on the other hand, calling for long-overdue promotions. The mayor’s letter expresses a desire to work together ‘to address the rifts in race relations that have developed within the Fire Department, whether based on ill feelings about these promotions or from historic grievances.’

“George similarly distorts his superiors’ statements that they would take race into account when considering his replacement. Viewed in context, the record reflects simply that the mayor and his directors remained sensitive to race relations in the department and hoped to identify a new fire chief capable of building cohesion. George was not demoted because of his race. He was demoted for insubordination.”

George v. Civil Service Com’n of City of St. Louis, 2010 WL 2605378 (Mo. App. E.D. 2010).

This article appears in the September 2010 issue