Tennessee Captain Alleges Race Discrimination in Forced Retirement

An African American fire captain who resigned earlier this year after being disciplined twice for missing runs, has filed a race discrimination and retaliation suit against the City of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Captain Theodore Pertiller, a 30 year veteran, filed suit last week in US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Captain Pertiller claims he was singled out for race-based scrutiny by two battalion chiefs, and when he complained to human resources he was singled out again and told to resign or be fired. As explained in the complaint:

  • In November 2018, Battalion Chief Daryl Alexander altered Captain Pertiller’s time records without reason, changing his time worked from “overtime” to “duty exchange”.
  • This alteration meant that Captain Pertiller would not be properly compensated for overtime he had worked.
  • There was no legitimate reason for Chief Alexander’s actions.
  • Similarly situated non-African-American employees were not subjected to this type of conduct.
  • Captain Pertiller complained to Battalion Chief Jamie Bigelow, who was able to correct the time entry.
  • On or about January 2, 2019, Chief Alexander issued a disciplinary action to Captain Pertiller for an incident that occurred five months earlier, on August 17, 2018.
  • This disciplinary action stemmed from a missed dispatch to Captain Pertiller’s engine that was made while Captain Pertiller was “flowing” (testing) fire hydrants, which he was required to do as part of his job.
  • When dispatch was unable to get in touch with Captain Pertiller’s engine, it did not attempt to reach any other engine.
  • When Captain Pertiller noticed the call, he checked in with dispatch and was told that the call had already been cleared and to disregard it.
  • On or about January 3, 2019, Captain Pertiller complained to the City’s Human Resources Department that both the timecard alteration and the January disciplinary action were discriminatory, and that the real reason for these actions was his race.
  • The City’s Human Resources Department agreed that race may have been a factor in Chief Alexander’s actions.
  • Throughout Captain Pertiller’s career, his practice and understanding of this policy had been to leave the engine designated as “out of service” until after training was complete and the engine had returned to its territory.
  • [O]n May 29, 2019, when Captain Pertiller, a driver, and a firefighter were training, their engine was designated as “out of service”.
  • After they finished training, but before they were back in territory or designated as “in service”, a medical call came through the dispatch system.
  • The call was not directed at Captain Pertiller or his engine. The engine that was dispatched responded.
  • However, the City initiated a disciplinary action against Captain Pertiller because he had waited until he was back in territory to return to service rather than returning to service immediately after training was over.
  • On June 19, 2019, a disciplinary hearing on this issue was held before Chief Foulks.
  • Chief Foulks told Captain Pertiller that he could resign or be fired. Chief Foulks told Captain Pertiller that if he were fired, he would lose $400,000.00 in retirement funds.
  • Based on this clear threat, Captain Pertiller had no choice but to accept his constructive discharge and resign on June 19, 2019.

The suit alleges that the initiation of disciplinary charges over the May 29, 2019 incident was in retaliation for his January 3, 2019 discrimination complaint, as was Chief Foulks’ threat to “resign or be fired.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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