7th Circuit Reinstates Chicago Firefighter’s Discrimination Suit

A lawsuit that accuses a Chicago Fire Department lieutenant and captain of discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation has been reinstated by the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The suit was filed in 2012 by former firefighter Roberto Alamo against Lieutenant Charlie Bliss, Captain Patrick Stefan and the City of Chicago. Alamo accused Lieutenant Bliss of race discrimination and creating a hostile work environment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Captain Stefan of assault and battery; and the City of race/national origin discrimination, disability discrimination, and retaliation. Here is a copy of the complaint: Alamo v Chicago COMPLAINT III

In 2015, the trial court dismissed all of Alamo’s claims, ruling that he failed “to plead the requisite severe or pervasive harassment necessary to assert a hostile work environment claim”. Here is a copy of that ruling: Alamo v Chicago DISTRICT COURT

Last week the 7th Circuit disagreed finding Alamo alleged sufficient facts to get the case to a jury. From the 7th Circuit’s decision:

  • in 2009, shortly after his transfer to Engine Company 55, other firefighters began verbally and physically harassing [Alamo].
  • The complaint asserts that firefighters called him “spic” and “f–king Puerto Rican.”
  • It also describes incidents involving firefighters stealing Mr. Alamo’s food or throwing his food away.
  • This treatment began in 2009 and “continu[ed] throughout 2010 and 2011.”
  • Alamo also alleges that the number of times on which he was “detailed,” or assigned to work at different locations, was excessive when compared to the assignments given to his non-Latino colleagues during the same time.
  • Alamo complained to his immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Bliss…. in July, August, and November of 2010, and again in April, July, and August of 2011.
  • Lieutenant Bliss did not remedy the behavior.
  • The complaint details a handful of specific incidents that occurred after Mr. Alamo initially complained to Lieutenant Bliss.
  • For example, in March 2011, fellow firefighter Dan Sheahan made derogatory comments to Mr. Alamo about his Puerto Rican national origin and then physically assaulted him.
  • The complaint also details a September 13, 2011 incident.
  • On that day, Mr. Alamo reported to work but was not feeling well due to allergies and informed Lieutenant Bliss and a colleague that he would be in the television room and might be sleeping.
  • About an hour later, Captain Stefan, a captain on a different truck from Mr. Alamo’s, woke Mr. Alamo up, yelled profanities at him, and stated, “I don’t like your kind, you better put in a transfer and get out of this firehouse because I don’t want you here.”
  • Captain Stefan then chest bumped Mr. Alamo, used more profanity, and threatened further physical violence.
  • Later that day, Captain Stefan again pushed Mr. Alamo against a wall, an incident witnessed by Lieutenant Bliss.
  • Alamo called 911 for assistance and spoke to police officers when they arrived, but he did not press charges
  • Alamo alleges that he did not take the matter further because he received a call from Chief Chickorotis, the Fire Chief assigned to Engine 42 Headquarters, who “pleaded with Alamo” to wait for him to arrive before doing anything.
  • When Chief Chickorotis arrived, he repeatedly asked Mr. Alamo not to bring charges and to let him resolve the incident without involving the police.
  • Later that evening, Chief Chickorotis brought Mr. Alamo to a different firehouse and they met privately.
  • Chief Chickorotis asked Mr. Alamo, “What can we do to make this all go away?”
  • Alamo said he wanted the Fire Department to “do the right thing.”
  • Chief Chickorotis became angry and said he was done talking to him.
  • The complaint contains several allegations which, taken together, sufficiently state hostile work environment claims under both Title VII and § 1983.
  • We are required at this stage to credit Mr. Alamo’s allegations that his coworkers used offensive slurs, stole his food, and physically threatened him over a two-year period.
  • We also are obliged to accept, for purposes of adjudicating this dismissal, Mr. Alamo’s allegations that he routinely complained to his supervisors of mistreatment and that those supervisors did nothing to curb the ongoing harassment he faced.
  • Alamo contends that being “detailed excessively” during his employment and the “needlessly piece-meal” investigation that the Department took when he sought to return from medical leave constitute adverse employment actions.
  • We believe that it is premature to conclude that excessively “detailing” Mr. Alamo did not result in an adverse employment action.
  • We recognize that there may be a lawful explanation for the Chicago Fire Department’s conduct. After all, fire departments are a “special work environment” and medical evaluations, including psychiatric evaluations, may be considered “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”
  • But dismissing Mr. Alamo’s claim at this stage would be shortsighted.

Here is a copy of the full 7th Circuit ruling: Alamo v Bliss et al

The case will be returned to District Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman for further proceedings.

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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