Rank Matters In Fire Department

Felicia Scroggins is a firefighter for the City of Shreveport, Louisiana. On September 20, 2010, Scroggins and other Shreveport firefighters responded to a residential fire. Scroggins and Captain Reggie Taylor were part of Fire Engine Six. Fire Engine Four, which was run by Captain Jeff Cash, also responded. While attempting to put out the fire, Scroggins and Captain Cash became involved in an altercation.

Scroggins told investigators that she entered the residence with Captain Taylor, who quickly realized that he had forgotten his helmet and told her to wait while he went to retrieve it. Meanwhile, Captain Cash arrived. He shoved Scroggins and asked her what she was waiting for and where the hose was. Scroggins fell on a table, dropped the hose, and sprained her left ankle. She retrieved the hose and followed it “to the end where someone had it.”

Scroggins then started pulling the line, “saying I got it, I got it.” Captain Cash opened the line, releasing water, and told Scroggins, “If you don’t stop I will have your fucking ass written up.” Scroggins asked to whom she was speaking, and when she heard “Captain Somebody, she did stop pulling the line because she did hear Captain.”

Scroggins filed a criminal complaint with the Shreveport Police Department, alleging that Captain Cash assaulted her by pushing her down and cursing at her. The police report does not show that Scroggins complained of either race or gender discrimination. It concludes that “there was no probable cause to show Mr. Cash intentionally used force upon Scroggins.” Eventually, Scroggins was suspended for her role in the incident, and responded with a race and gender discrimination lawsuit against the City.

The core of Scroggins’ discrimination claim was that Cash was not disciplined nearly as severely as she was. Scroggins argued that both Captain Cash and she were in the same physical environment when the altercation occurred, that is, “in the heat of a hot fire with zero visibility.” She contended that “in the heat of the fire,” rank does not matter because “fire persons, no matter what their rank, are charged with the same rules,” and that both Captain Cash and she had a responsibility to fight the fire.

A federal trial court rejected Scroggins’ claims. The Court was unpersuaded that Scroggins and Cash were similarly situated: “It is true that the physical circumstances of Scroggins’ and Captain Cash’s violations were identical. But the Court is hard put to make sense of Scroggins’ unsupported argument that Captain Cash’s rank is irrelevant because they were both fighting the fire. Intuitively, it would seem that in the face of an unpredictable danger like a fire, a strong hierarchy, with some people authorized to give orders and others required to obey them, would be necessary to maintain order and ensure safety.

“Regardless, Scroggins critically fails to offer any evidence to dispute the fact that she was punished for substantially different violations than those of Captain Cash. While the record indicates that Captain Cash was punished for cursing at a subordinate, Scroggins was punished for trying to pull the hose away from a superior. Scroggins has failed to present any evidence that her conduct was nearly identical to the conduct of Captain Cash; therefore she has failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination.

“Even if Scroggins had succeeded in making out a prima facie claim, the Court is persuaded that the City has proffered a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decision – namely, that Scroggins endangered everyone’s safety by failing to obey Captain Cash and by trying to take the hose away while he was fighting the fire, whereas Captain Cash only cursed at Scroggins – and that Scroggins has failed to offer any evidence of pretext. In order to establish pretext, a plaintiff must produce substantial evidence indicating that the proffered legitimate nondiscriminatory reason is a pretext for discrimination. The Court is not convinced that the discrepancy between the punishment of Scroggins and Captain Cash is evidence of pretext. If discrepancy in punishment alone were sufficient to show pretext, then by definition any disparate impact claim that made it to the pretext analysis would pass muster. At most, Scroggins has offered evidence, in the form of her own testimony, that the Fire Department erred when it either disregarded or did not believe her testimony that she did not know Captain Cash was a Captain when she pulled on the hose. But even assuming the Fire Department did err in this way, that error has nothing to do with race or gender and therefore is not evidence of pretext.”

Scroggins v. City of Shreveport, 2014 WL 2547805 (W.D. La. 2014).