Detroit Firefighter Fired Over Watermelon Suing For Discrimination

The Detroit firefighter who was fired last October because he brought a watermelon as a gift to African American firefighters at his new firehouse, has filed suit alleging reverse discrimination.

Robert Pattison filed suit yesterday in Wayne County Circuit Court naming Fire Commissioner Eric Jones, Deputy Commissioner Charles Simms, and Chief of Training Alfie Green. The eight-page suit includes eight counts:

  • Violation of Michigan’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, MCL 37.2101, et. seq., by treating him differently than black employees who have engaged in wrongful conduct, and making the decision to discipline him because he is caucasian
  • Violation of Michigan’s Bullard-Plawecki Employee Right to Know Act, MCL 423.501, et. seq. because Commissioner Jones spoke to the press about Plaintiff’s termination without first giving Pattison notice
  • Race discrimination actionable under 42 USC§ 1981
  • Equal protection violation under 42 USC § 1983
  • First Amendment retaliation
  • Defamation
  • False Light Invasion of Privacy
  • Intentional Infliction of Severe Emotional Distress

Pattison, who had just graduated from the fire academy, brought the watermelon as a welcome gift to his new firehouse. The idea of bringing a gift is traditional in the Detroit Fire Department. However, the watermelon was taken as a racially offensive, or at least racially insensitive gesture by the rookie which quickly led to his dismissal.

As explained in the complaint:

  • Plaintiff successfully received Cadet training with the Detroit Fire Department and was hired by the Detroit Fire Department on or about July 10, 2017.
  • Late In September 2017, Plaintiff was assigned to the Detroit Fire Department station known as “Engine 55.”
  • Plaintiff was counseled that it is customary practice within the Detroit Fire Department for a firefighter, upon assignment to a new station, to bring a gift for his or her fellow firefighters. The usual gift is doughnuts. ·
  • In an effort to provide a healthful and economical alternative to doughnuts, Plaintiff, on or about September 30, 2017, brought the firefighters stationed at Engine 55 a watermelon as his customary gift.
  • Plaintiff harbored no racial animus, discriminatory purpose, or any other negative intention in giving the watermelon as a gift.
  • Plaintiff was not on duty and not acting in the course of his employment when he brought his gift to Engine 55.
  • Plaintiff was discharged by Defendant Detroit Fire Department on or about October 5, 2017 with the explanation of: “Unsatisfactory Work Behavior – Offensive conduct of a discriminatory nature.” The “City of Detroit Recommendation on Permanent Status Final Probation/Trial Period Report” documenting Plaintiff’s discharge was signed by Defendants Green and Simms.
  • The “offensive conduct of a discriminatory nature” was, apparently and preposterously, Plaintiff’s act of bringing a watermelon to Engine 55.
  • Plaintiff is a white man. Engine 55, at the time of Plaintiff’s termination, was comprised of 90% black firefighters.
  • Black firefighters who engaged in offensive conduct related to race were not subjected to immediate termination.
  • Defendants’ decision to terminate Plaintiff was dominated by the fact that Plaintiff was Caucasian.
  • Defendants would never have discharged a black employee for gifting a watermelon.
  • By terminating Plaintiff for an act that certainly would have been considered benign if done by a black employee, Defendants intentionally deprived Plaintiff of the same rights that are enjoyed by black citizens to the creation, performance, enjoyment, and all benefits and privileges, of his employment relationship with Defendant Detroit Fire Department.
  • In their discriminatory actions as alleged above, Defendants have acted with malice or reckless indifference to the rights of Plaintiff, thereby entitling Plaintiff to an award of punitive damages.
  • As a direct and proximate result of Defendants’ discrimination in violation of 42 USC§ 1981, Plaintiff has been denied employment opportunities providing substantial compensation and benefits, thereby entitling him to injunctive and equitable monetary relief.
  • Plaintiff has suffered anguish. humiliation, distress, inconvenience and loss of enjoyment of life because of Defendants’ actions, thereby entitling him to compensatory damages.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Pattison v Detroit

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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