Mount Vernon Firefighter Alleges Retaliation and Race Discrimination

A Mount Vernon firefighter who served briefly as deputy fire commissioner in 2016 has filed suit against the city, the mayor, a captain and a chief accusing them of harassment, race discrimination, retaliation and whistleblower violations.

Ernest Richardson filed suit last week in Westchester County Supreme Court naming the City of Mount Vernon, the Mount Vernon Fire Department, Mayor Richard Thomas, Chief of Operations al Farid Salahuddin and Captain Michael St. John. According to the suit, Richardson was forced to step down as Deputy Fire Commissioner six months after his appointment because he refused to re-hire the mayor’s brother, a former Mount Vernon firefighter who resigned after being arrested on gun charges in 2015. Richardson also objected to race-based promotions the mayor sought to make, placing him at odds with Captain St. John and Chief Salahuddin.

From the complaint:

  • Plaintiff, Ernest Richardson, is a 41-year-old, black, male, who has an expansive career as a firefighter with the MVFD. Plaintiff started his career as a firefighter in February 2003.
  • At all times throughout Plaintiff’s career, Plaintiff was an exemplary employee who’s performance met and exceed his employer’s expectations, which led to his promotion.
  • In January 2016, Plaintiff was appointed by Mayor Thomas to assume the role of Deputy Fire Commissioner and worked in that capacity until his constructive demotion in August 2016.
  • During his time as Deputy Fire Commissioner, Plaintiff was assigned to the MVFD Headquarters.
  • As Deputy Fire Commissioner, Plaintiff’s job duties were to oversee the entire MVFD, conduct meetings, manage/oversee/supervise over 150+ employees, managed the MVFD’s annual budget, and wore a professional suit every day to work instead of a firefighter’s uniform.
  • However, after August 2016 when Plaintiff was constructively demoted, Plaintiff’s employment conditions were altered and he was re-assigned to Fire Station #2 under the demoted position of “Firefighter”.
  • In 2015, Defendant Mayor Thomas’ brother, Henry George Thomas, was indicted and criminally charged with multiple felony counts involving possession of illegal firearms.
  • Consequently, Henry Thomas was forced to resign in January 2016 from his position as a Mount Vernon firefighter.
  • In March 2016, during Plaintiff’s tenure as Fire Commissioner, Defendant Mayor Thomas and his father, Henry Thomas Sr., demanded that Plaintiff re-hire Henry George Thomas back as a firefighter.
  • Plaintiff openly objected to their demands and refused to participate in this illegal activity, which caused a substantial danger and threat to the community at large by having such a dangerous person on the job.
  • Plaintiff told Mayor Thomas and the Mayor’s father that he would not agree, participate or perform such actions because he knew it was illegal, unethical, and violated numerous charter rules and regulations governing firefighters, and therefore created a substantial danger to the public to return such person to work.
  • Defendants began a campaign of retaliation against Plaintiff for his objections from March 2016 to the present.
  • Mayor Thomas and Mayor Thomas’ father frequently called Plaintiff’s office phone at the MVFD Headquarters and his personal phone to verbally threaten him.
  • Specifically, both stated to Plaintiff that he should be removed as Fire Commissioner for his refusal to follow their orders and should be replaced by someone who will follow what they need done.
  • Plaintiff was also frequently harassed and humiliated in the workplace by his supervisors, St. John and Salahuddin, who caused this harassment at the direction and allegiance to Mayor Thomas.
  • Specifically, both St. John and Salahuddin frequently call Plaintiff to date a “faggot”, “piece of shit”, “white boy lover”, “caterer to the white boys” and “fake brother”, for refusing the Mayor’s demands and Plaintiff’s open support of his Caucasian male co-workers, which St. John and Salahuddin harass and intimidate Plaintiff for same as perceived homosexuality.
  • These comments and acts of retaliation have endured from January 2016 to the present.
  • In approximately July 2016, Plaintiff was ordered by Defendant Mayor Thomas to promote, then-Captain, Jimmy Lang to the rank of Deputy Chief.
  • Plaintiff agreed to said promotion as the Fire Commissioner at that time and requested Lang’s family to appear at City Hall the following Monday for a promotional ceremony.
  • Although Lang’s family physically appeared at City Hall for the ceremony, Mayor Thomas abruptly changed his mind the day of the ceremony, cancelled the ceremony and decided not to promote Lang that day.
  • When Plaintiff confronted Mayor Thomas about his actions, Mayor Thomas responded that he wanted to promote, then-Captain Salahuddin first instead of Lang, despite Salahuddin scoring lower than Lang on the promotional test.
  • Specifically, Mayor Thomas’ decision to promote Salahuddin over Lang was a direct deviation from the MVFD’s current protocol to promote from the promotional by rank order.
  • This was a policy created by Plaintiff that Mayor was directly obstruction in further retaliation against Plaintiff and his rank, and to foster a race-based promotion to the Mayor’s crony Salahuddin.
  • Plaintiff openly objected to the Mayor skipping the promotion of Lang, as it would create a serious racial issue on the job.
  • Consequently, in approximately August 2016, the situation became so hostile and untenable for Plaintiff to remain as Fire Commissioner that he was constructively demoted and forced to resign from his position as Fire Commissioner.
  • The harassing, offensive, and discriminatory comments continued, when on the very first day of Plaintiff’s demoted job title of “Firefighter”, Defendant St. John told the Plaintiff, “I’m your fucking boss now”, and “Your ass is mine”.
  • Thereafter, on a daily basis, from July 2016 until September 2018, Defendant St. John harassed Plaintiff on the basis of his race/skin color, calling him a “white boy lover”, “caterer to the white boys”, “Pussy faggot” and “sell out bitch”, and a host of other racial profanities.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Richardson v Mount Vernon at al

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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