Pensacola Chief Sues for Retaliation

A white Florida fire chief who was terminated after raising concerns about the treatment of an African American deputy chief by the city’s human resource director, has filed suit in federal court alleging race discrimination and retaliation.

Chief Matthew Schmitt served as interim fire chief in Pensacola from 2010 until he was terminated last May. He claims that in September, 2015 he brought some concerns to City Administrator Eric Olsen, including concerns about a racial animus harbored by the city’s Chief Human Resources Officer, Edward Sisson, toward Deputy Chief Deputy Joseph Glover.

When nothing was done, Chief Glover filed a race discrimination complaint with the EEOC, as did Chief Schmitt several weeks later. In early February, the city placed both men on administrative leave, apparently based upon a complaint brought by Sisson. Following an “investigation” by an outside law firm, Chief Schmitt and Chief Glover were terminated.

Chief Schmitt’s suit names the City of Pensacola, Mayor Ashton Hayward, Olsen and Sisson as defendants, accusing them of employment discrimination and retaliation. All three men are named individually as well as in their official capacities.

As explained in the complaint:

  • On September 3, 2015, Plaintiff attended a meeting with Defendant Olson to discuss raises for exempt employees and non-bargaining unit employees.
  • In this meeting, Plaintiff relayed concerns to Defendant Olson about the racially motivated discrimination that Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Glover (African American) was experiencing from the Chief Human Resources Officer, Defendant Sisson.
  • In this same meeting Plaintiff also relayed concerns to Defendant Olson that Deputy Chief Glover was not being paid appropriately due to similar racial animus on behalf of Defendant Sisson.
  • On September 30, 2015, Plaintiff again met with Defendant Olson and expressed his concerns over the racial discrimination that Deputy Chief Glover was experiencing.
  • Defendant Olson did nothing to address the concerns expressed by Plaintiff in either of the September meetings, stating that Deputy Chief Glover simply needed to move on.
  • On December 4, 2015, Plaintiff submitted paperwork to the City for requested pay increases to eight (8) exempt fire department employees, including himself.
  • On December 7, 2015, Defendant Olson informed Plaintiff that Plaintiff would not receive the requested pay raise.
  • On December 8, 2015, Deputy Chief Glover filed an EEOC charge against the City for racial discrimination.
  • On December 29, 2015, Plaintiff filed his EEOC charge for discrimination and retaliation.
  • On February 2, 2016, Plaintiff and Deputy Chief Glover were … both were placed on indefinite administrative leave.
  • On February 2, 2016, both Plaintiff and Deputy Chief Glover requested an administrative appeal to the personnel board.
  • On February 2, 2016, the City removed the section from the Human Resources Manual allowing for administrative appeal to the personnel board.
  • On February 9, 2016, Plaintiff filed another charge due to being placed on administrative leave.
  • On February 9, 2016, Defendant Olson stated in an interview with
  • News Radio 1620 that both Plaintiff and Deputy Chief Glover were placed on administrative leave in response to the EEOC complaints they filed.
  • Defendant Olson stated that they did so “to preserve the integrity of the investigation” and that the City was to “retain an outside counsel to conduct an investigation”. Defendant Olson also stated that he did not know if it was standard practice or not to suspend employees who filed EEOC complaints and could not “cite a specific instance of when [the City last did so]”.
  • In regard to the appeal procedure that changed the day the Fire Chiefs were placed on administrative leave, Defendant Olson stated that the change was made because “Under the new form of government, the mayor is given ultimate authority, and that’s delegated to the city administrator”.
  • Finally, Defendant Olson then inaccurately stated that the removed personnel board appeals process was a “legacy of the old civil service” system and that it was no longer needed. Yet staff analysis from the promulgation of the bill repealing the city’s civil service act explicitly states that “Upon repeal of the Civil Service Act, the City of Pensacola’s human resources office intends to create an Independent Personnel Board”.
  • Defendant Olson then concluded that the Fire Chiefs were “not being disciplined and this process is an entirely separate issue”.
  • On February 11, 2016, Plaintiff received a letter from Russell Van Sickle at the law firm of Beggs & Lane RLLP located in Pensacola, Florida, stating that he was to be conducting an investigation of the Fire Chiefs.
  • Yet, this letter from Van Sickle listed a variety of topics he was to be investigating, and specifically stated that “I am setting forth in this letter allegations raised as to your management of the Fire Department that could potentially result in a disciplinary action. These allegations were raised by Edward Sisson, Human Resources Administrator”. Only briefly, at the end of the letter, did Van Sickle state “I have been made aware that you have filed an EEOC complaint, about which I would like to hear from you”.
  • Over the course of the next two and a half months, Plaintiff and Deputy Chief Glover cooperated with all requests of the City and its “independent” investigator, Van Sickle.
  • On May 10, 2016, Defendant Mayor Hayward and Defendant City of Pensacola terminated the employment of the Plaintiff and Deputy Chief Glover.
  • Plaintiff then initiated the formal, internal appeals process. On June 7, 2016, the City formally denied said appeal and the termination became official.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Schmitt v Pensacola

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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