Illinois Firefighter Sues For Discrimination and Retaliation

An Illinois firefighter who was elected to the city council and ran unsuccessfully for Mayor, is now suing the fire department, the fire chief and his opponent-mayor alleging he was discriminated against on account of his Mexican heritage, and retaliated against for his political efforts.

Rodney Perez, who was a firefighter with the City of Peru until he resigned in 2017, claims he was subjected to racial slurs and other forms of hostilities throughout much his career. However, following a leave of absence during which he ran against incumbent Scott Harl for Mayor, he claims he was retaliated against by the mayor and the fire chief.

Perez also claims that while serving on the city council, he frequently found himself at odds with Mayor Harl, who at one point told him that is days with the city were “numbered”.  The suit alleges race discrimination, national origin discrimination, retaliation, and violation of his First Amendment rights. The First Amendment claims arise out of retaliation attributable to  Perez’s service on the city council and running for elected office.

Among the allegations that Perez made:

  • Throughout his employment as a firefighter, Perez was subject to harassment, slights, slurs, assaults, and mistreatment by fellow firefighters on the basis of his race and national origin. The harassment was pervasive and rampant, including, but not limited to:
  • firefighters repeatedly calling Perez slurs such as “spic,” “beaner,” “taco,” and “little Mexican”;
  • firefighters spraying Perez with a water hose, or otherwise ensuring that he got wet, so they could refer to him as a “wetback”;
  • in discussing the possibility of other Hispanic firefighters being hired, stating words to the effect, “we already have one, we don’t need another.”
  • These incidents were not hidden and often occurred in the presence of [Fire Chief Jeff] King.
  • King took no action against the perpetrators. At times when King was present, he would laugh along at the slurs.
  • In or around October 2013, Peru’s newly-hired Superintendent of Public Works, Sean Mikos, accused Harl of providing a favored employee an under the table pay raise over the course of several years, through surreptitiously making unearned “overtime” payments to him, without City Council approval, at a time when Peru was in the midst of a pay freeze for employees generally.
  • The City Council took up the matter. In a meeting in November 2013, Perez called for an investigation of the matter, including Harl’s conduct, by law enforcement, the results of which should be made public.
  • Perez was outvoted by the remaining Council members, who instead approved a private, internal investigation by a local former judge.
  • Before a City Council meeting on December 30, 2013, Harl told Perez, whose stance on the overtime payment scandal antagonized Harl, that Perez’s days as a City of Peru employee were “numbered.”
  • When Superintendent of Public Works Mikos resigned, Harl appointed King to that position.
  • King kept his Fire Chief position; consequently, his City salary substantially increased.
  • In the winter of 2016-2017, Perez ran for Mayor of Peru against Harl.
  • Among his platform items was that the City hire a qualified Public Works Superintendent, thereby allowing King to focus on his job as fire chief. This would also have the effect of limiting him to one salary.
  • Perez made this position known publicly throughout his campaign.
  • Both King and Harl strongly opposed this position.
  • King falsely told PFD firefighters that if elected Mayor, Perez intended to fire King from his position as Chief of the PFD, displace command vehicles used by other firefighters and PFD officers, and “shake up” the fire department.
  • After King made these assertions, the slurs, insults, assaults, and harassment described above increased in frequency and intensity.
  • In addition to repeated slurs, including “spic,” etc., Perez was, again, sprayed with water and called “wetback.”
  • A firefighter asked Perez before Halloween if he would be dressing up as a “Chalupa.”
  • During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, firefighters repeatedly asked Perez whether he would knock over “the wall” and bring his family into this country if Trump was elected.
  • One time when this remark was made, Deputy Fire Chief Jim Duncan was present, and rather than reprimand the perpetrator for the racist remark, he laughed at it.
  • Perez complained to Duncan, who did nothing, instead telling Perez “you know how these guys are,” or words to that effect.
  • Having received no help from Duncan, Perez then complained to King, who also did nothing and said roughly the same thing to Perez to explain the comments away.
  • Harl won the election on April 4, 2017, and when Perez sought to return to work at the PFD, King retaliated against Perez by erecting unprecedented barriers to his return. In addition, the racial and ethnically-based harassment escalated.
  • On April 26, 2017, Perez filed a formal complaint with Peru’s Human Resources Department, claiming retaliation, harassment, and discrimination, citing the barriers placed on his return to work as well as past episodes of race and national origin harassment.

Perez claims that the ethnic harassment continued to escalate until July 26, 2017, when he discovered pinto beans and a pepper placed in his turnout boots. At that point he decided it was not safe for him to continue working for the fire department, and he resigned.

The complaint was filed January 30, 2018 in US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. It names the City, Mayor Harl and Chief King as defendants. Here is a copy of the complaint: Perez v Peru

More on the story.

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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