Use of Racial Slur Warrants Termination of Boston Jake

The Massachusetts Civil Service Commission has upheld the termination of a Boston firefighter for his use of the N-word in the firehouse while off-duty. Gregory R. LaVallee, a 14-year veteran of the Boston Fire Department, was terminated on March 15, 2019 over an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of December 13, 2018 at the Hanover Street quarters of Ladder 1.

The facts according to the decision are as follows:

  • Between 12AM and 1AM on December 13, 2018, FF CB was in the station’s TV room sitting in a recliner playing a video game called “Ark” on his Playstation gaming console.
  • Mr. LaVallee, who was not on duty that night, entered the TV room with Chinese food, stumbling and smelling strongly of alcohol on his person and breath.
  • Mr. LaVallee sat in a chair to the right of the recliner, and asked FF CB if he would like any Chinese food. FF CB declined and Mr. LaVallee left the room.
  • Shortly thereafter, Mr. LaVallee returned to the TV room, and sat in a recliner chair approximately nine (9) feet behind FF CB.
  • FF CB heard the sounds of Mr. LaVallee eating food from a bowl.
  • FF CB was, at that point, conversing with his girlfirend, CH, via the online “party chat” feature on the Playstation console.
  • While FF CB was communicating with CH through the party chat, he heard Mr. LaVallee say “you fucking [n-word],” and then he heard Mr. LaVallee “hock a louie,” a noise that indicated to FF CB that Mr. LaVallee was clearing his throat to spit.
  • CH, while communicating with FF CB through the party chat, heard Mr. Lavallee say “fucking [n-word]” and then heard Mr. LaVallee “clear his throat as if to spit.”
  • FF CB stood up from his recliner, and exited the TV room to inform his commanding officer that night, Lt. BS, of the incident. Lt. BS was in his quarters located down a hallway outside the TV room.
  • When FF CB knocked on Lt. BS’s door, Lt. MH, commanding officer on the engine that night, also opened the door to his adjacent quarters.
  • FF CB told Lt. BS: “You better get fucking LaVallee out of the TV room before I punch him in the face. He’s drunk, he’s saying [n-word] this, [n-word] that, and spitting on the floor.”
  • In March 2011, Mr. LaVallee was suspended for four (4) tours for entering a firehouse while off-duty for making an “inappropriate racial comment” to two black firefighters.
  • Deputy Chief Malone confirmed that the “inappropriate racial comment” included the n-word.

Following a departmental investigation and hearing, LaVallee was terminated. He appealed the termination to the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission arguing that The Boston Fire Department failed to follow the procedural requirements for termination, and contested whether there was just cause for termination.

In addressing the procedural issues, the Commission acknowledged the fire department did not give LaVallee a copy of the victim’s (CB) personnel file, nor a copy of his written complaint to the EEOC, both of which may have contained exculpatory information.

  • The BFD notified Mr. LaVallee of the specific allegations and charges against him well in advance of the pre-termination hearing.
  • Mr. LaVallee’s attorney appeared at the pre-termination hearing on Mr. LaVallee’s behalf.
  • Mr. LaVallee’s attorney submitted documentary exhibits into evidence at the pre-termination hearing and called a witness in his defense.
  • Mr. LaVallee’s attorney cross-examined the BFD’s witnesses.
  • The BFD provided Mr. LaVallee with a detailed written explanation of the BFD’s decision to terminate him following the pre-termination hearing including information regarding his right to file an appeal with the Commission.
  • The BFD’s decision to not provide Mr. LaVallee with a copy of FF CB’s personnel file, which the Commission also denied as part of the discovery process, was justified.
  • The BFD’s decision to not provide Mr. LaVallee with a copy of FF CB’s EEOC complaint, while different from the Commission’s decision, was grounded in a good faith belief by the BFD that providing such information was not warranted.
  • More importantly, that decision, standing alone, did not constitute the type of procedural error that prevented the full hearing.

The decision then addressed whether the fire department had just cause for termination.

  • [T]he Commission is, once again, faced with an appeal involving the use of the repugnant n-word.
  • The context in which it occurred here is particularly ugly.
  • Mr. LaVallee, a white firefighter, does not dispute that, while off-duty, he walked into the North End firehouse during the early morning hours so intoxicated that he cannot remember what transpired in the TV room where on-duty Firefighter CB, a black firefighter, was sitting.
  • By entering the firehouse in a drunken state and using the n-word while spitting on the floor, Mr. LaVallee engaged in substantial (and abhorrent) misconduct which adversely affects the public interest and constitutes a violation of various rules and regulations of the BFD, including conducting unbecoming a firefighter.
  • BFD policy forbids “[c]onduct unbecoming a member, whether on or off duty, which tends to lower the [fire] service in the estimation of the public,” and “[c]onduct prejudicial to good order.”
  • While the unsavory act of Mr. LaVallee spitting on the floor while eating Chinese food and uttering the n-word, standing alone, represents substantial misconduct, the record doesn’t support the allegation that Mr. LaVallee was spitting at FF CB that morning.
  • Having determined that Mr. LaVallee did engage in the alleged misconduct, I must determine whether the level of discipline (termination) was warranted.
  • First, although my findings do differ from the BFD regarding whether Mr. LaVallee spat at FF CB and whether Mr. LaVallee physically threatened FF CB, I have reached the same conclusion regarding the most serious allegation — that Mr. LaVallee used the n-word in the firehouse in a conversation with a black, on-duty Boston Firefighter.
  • Prior Commission decisions have stated unequivocally that racist behavior by a public employee is grounds for termination.
  • Mr. LaVallee argues that alcoholism, for which he has sought treatment, was the cause of his behavior and should be taken into consideration regarding whether termination is the appropriate penalty here.
  • I am not unsympathetic to Mr. LaVallee’s challenges with alcoholism and applaud his efforts to seek treatment.
  • However, this is the second time that Mr. LaVallee has been disciplined for using the n-word. In 2011, he engaged in the exact same egregious misconduct, entering a firehouse while off-duty, and using the n-word in reference to two (2) black firefighters.
  • In that context, a downward modification of the penalty is not warranted here.
  • For all of the above reasons, Mr. LaVallee’s appeal under Docket No. D1-19-059 is hereby denied.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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