Fire Chief Loses Lawsuit Against Firefighters’ Union

Michael Pruitt was the first African-American Fire Chief for the City of Longview, Texas. After he was terminated from this position, he filed suit against the Longview Professional Firefighters Association, Local 4331 of the IAFF, as well as several officers of the union. Pruitt alleged that Local 4331 “initiated a public campaign targeted to undermine the public perception of Chief Pruitt’s work ethics and initiatives, as well as his competence before the management of the City of Longview, the rank and file of Local 4331 and the citizens of Longview, Texas.” In particular, Pruitt complained about a questionnaire sent by Local 4331 to its membership soliciting comment on the Chief’s job performance. Pruitt maintained that the “questionnaire was ill conceived and targeted to elicit negative comments about the new African-American Chief and to bring about his ouster.” The survey “suggesting lack of trust, anger, and micromanagement” by Pruitt.

The essence of Pruitt’s complaint against Local 4331 was that it violated a state law prohibiting a labor organization from aiding or abetting discrimination by another. As Pruitt phrased it, Local 4331 aided and abetted the City in discharging him from employment.

The problem Pruitt encountered was another section of the Texas discrimination law that requires a person claiming to be aggrieved by an unlawful employment practice to file a complaint with the Texas Workforce Commission “not later than the 180th day after the date the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” Pruitt failed to file a complaint with the Commission.

The Texas Court of Appeals held that the filing statute was mandatory, and the Pruitt lost his right to sue Local 4331 by not complying with the statute. The Court held that “a plaintiff must comply with administrative prerequisites to sustain an employment discrimination cause of action. This is mandatory and jurisdictional. Exhaustion of Commission administrative remedies is a prerequisite to bringing a civil action for discrimination claims.”

Pruitt argued that even if his discrimination claim failed, he still should be allowed to pursue other claims against Local 4331, including “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” breach of fiduciary duty, and “tortious interference with employment relationship.” The Court disagreed, reasoning that “in Pruitt’s case, we must decide whether the gravamen of his complaint is racial discrimination and whether his common-law causes of action are based on the same course of conduct giving rise to his statutory discrimination claim. Pruitt’s petition stated he was ‘singled out, ostracized and undermined’ because he was African-American. While the alleged ‘sinister and ill conceived’ campaign was targeted to undermine the public perception of Pruitt’s ‘work ethics and initiatives,’ which Pruitt argues could form an independent tort of breach of fiduciary duty and interference with employment relations, the petition stated that the questionnaire was targeted to ‘elicit negative comments about the new African-American Chief and to bring about his ouster.’

“After listing the facts, the complaint explained that ‘based on all of these actions,’ Pruitt was terminated and immediately filed a complaint with the EEOC. Under each cause of action, Pruitt re-pled the factual portions of the petition. He complained that the officers were engaging in ‘behaviors of discriminatory practices.’ There are no additional facts recited under the common-law causes of action that would give rise to independent tort claims. From the face of this petition, it appears that racial discrimination was the gravamen of Pruitt’s complaint.

“We conclude that the facts giving rise to Pruitt’s common-law causes of action were inextricably intertwined with the facts giving rise to complaints that could have been resolved through the Commission’s administrative procedures. We find that a racial discrimination complaint was the gravamen of Pruitt’s action and that allowing his complaint to proceed without meeting the requirement of exhaustion of remedies would collide with the elaborately crafted statutory scheme.”

Pruitt v. International Ass’n of Fire Fighters, 2012 WL 1940630 (Tex. App. 2012).