Chief Cochran’s Suit Survives Motion to Dismiss

A federal judge has refused to dismiss the lawsuit filed by former Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, who was terminated earlier this year by Mayor Kasim Reed. Reed was upset over a self-published book Chief Cochran authored about his religious beliefs that some consider to be critical of homosexuality.

Chief Cochran sued the City of Atlanta and Mayor Reed alleging a variety of constitutional claims including religious discrimination, violation of his First Amendment Rights, due process violations and retaliation.

Yesterday, Judge Leigh Martin May handled down a 45 page decision denying Mayor Reed’s motion to dismiss the complaint, concluding that Chief Cochran alleged sufficient grounds for the case to proceed on five of nine counts. Judge May did dismiss four counts: Establishment Clause (Count V); Equal Protection (Count VI); Due Process: Vagueness (Count VII); and Due Process: Liberty Interest (Count VIII), as well as dismiss Mayor Reed from three additional counts. As to Count V Judge May granted Chief Cochran 14 days to amend his complaint.

Chief Cochran’s case has engendered a great deal of controversy in the fire service as well as among supporters of the LGBT community. It has also let to a great deal of misinformation and disinformation by those who have not even bothered to read the book – but rather rely upon agenda-focused headlines that pits religious-freedom against gay-rights.

In an effort to get some truthful information out there, here is Judge May’s summation of the evidence to date:

  • Plaintiff Kelvin J. Cochran worked as the Fire Chief of the Atlanta Fire and Rescue Department … beginning in 2008. In 2009, Plaintiff left the AFRD to serve as Administrator of the United States Fire Administration in Washington, D.C., but he returned ten months later.
  • Plaintiff remained the Fire Chief of AFRD until January 6, 2015.
  • Plaintiff is also a devout evangelical Christian and is a member and Deacon at Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. In late 2013, Plaintiff wrote and self-published a book entitled Who Told You That You Were Naked?: Overcoming the Stronghold of Condemnation.
  • The book was inspired by a men’s Bible study at Plaintiff’s church, which included a unit on God’s question to Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?” The book was written primarily for men and is intended to help them fulfill God’s purpose for their lives. According to the Plaintiff, the primary goal of the book is to guide men on how to overcome the stronghold of condemnation, to walk in the fullness of salvation, and to live a faith-filled, virtuous life.
  • The book includes passages indicating that sex outside of the confines of marriage between a man and woman—including fornication, homosexual acts, and all other types of non-marital sex—is contrary to God’s will. The Complaint alleges this teaching is consistent with the Bible and historic Christian teaching.
  • When Plaintiff set out to write the book, he contacted Nina Hickson, the City of Atlanta Ethics Officer and asked whether a currently serving city official could write a non-work-related, faith-based book. Ms. Hickson responded that he could write the book, so long as the subject matter of the book was not the city government or fire department.
  • When Plaintiff was close to completing the book, he asked Ms. Hickson whether he could state he was Atlanta’s Fire Chief in the “About the Author” section, and she responded in the affirmative. Therefore, Plaintiff included a phrase in that section stating he “is currently serving as Fire Chief of the City of Atlanta Fire Rescue Department (GA).”
  • In January 2014, after the book was published, Plaintiff provided copies of the book to City of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and three Atlanta City Council members.
  • He also gave copies of the book to 10 AFRD employees he contends were Christians, knew he was writing the book, and had requested to receive copies of it upon completion. He subsequently gave away copies to a few AFRD employees as a free gift, to 3-5 employees who requested a copy, and to 3 employees who had previously shared their Christian faith with him. The last time Plaintiff gave a free copy of the book to an AFRD employee was in October 2014.
  • Plaintiff did not convey to any AFRD employees who received his book that reading or following the teachings of his book was in any way relevant to their status or advancement within AFRD.
  • In November 2014, an AFRD member apparently showed the passages of the book concerning its views on sexual morality to City Councilmember Alex Wan and told Councilmember Wan that the passages were contrary to his beliefs on the subject.
  • This complaint to Councilmember Wan precipitated discussion of the matter among the City’s upper management. The consensus of that discussion was that a meeting with Mayor Reed was necessary and that a recommendation would be made for Plaintiff’s termination.
  • On November 24, 2014, Plaintiff received a letter from the City advising him that he was suspended for 30 days without pay.
  • The letter stated that Plaintiff’s suspension was due to his “performance of an action that constitutes a ‘cause of action’ as outlined in Section 114-528 of the Code of Ordinances City of Atlanta.”
  • Section 114-528(b) provides 21 ways in which a City employee can commit a “cause of action,” but the City’s letter did not provide any details regarding the grounds for Plaintiff’s suspension.
  • Plaintiff contends that he was suspended because of the religious views expressed in his book.
  • In a statement issued November 24, 2014, concerning Plaintiff’s suspension, Mayor Reed stated that he “was surprised and disappointed to learn of this book on Friday.”
  • Specifically, Mayor Reed stated “I profoundly disagree with and am deeply disturbed by the sentiments expressed in the paperback regarding the LGBT community,” and “I want to be be clear that the material in Chief Cochran’s book is not representative of my personal beliefs, and is inconsistent with the Administration’s work to make Atlanta a more welcoming city for all of her citizens—regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, race and religious beliefs.”
  • Mayor Reed’s Facebook page stated that “the contents of the book do not reflect the views of Mayor Reed or the Administration.”
  • City Councilmember Wan made a statement to the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “I respect each individual’s right to have their own thoughts, beliefs and opinions, but when you’re a city employee, and those thoughts, beliefs and opinions are different from the city’s, you have to check them at the door.”
  • On January 6, 2015, the day Plaintiff’s unpaid suspension ended, the City fired Plaintiff.
  • Plaintiff has never been accused of discriminating against anyone based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other protected characteristic. Plaintiff contends that he complied with all Atlanta Ordinances and policies.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Cochran v Atlanta 12 16 2015 ruling

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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