Tampa Prevails in Termination Appeal

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected the appeal of a Tampa firefighter who was terminated in 2015 on a variety of charges including violation of the department’s rules of conduct, insubordination, neglect of duty, and breach of the peace.

Patterson Ceus, a black male, claimed he was terminated because he complained about race discrimination in the department. According to the decision, Ceus claimed that “his superiors subjected him to unwarranted scrutiny, disciplined him for alleged misconduct that either did not happen or was only penalized when Ceus engaged in it, downgraded his performance evaluations, and, ultimately, terminated him.”

The final straw for Ceus was an incident in February, 2015 where he was accused of cutting the lock off the locker of a chief officer and placing his belongings in a garbage bag.  Ceus denied involvement, but a captain testified that Ceus admitted to being responsible. The chief officer whose locker was vandalized (District Chief Edward Chapman who is black and has previously had problems with Ceus), reported the incident to his superiors.

Ceus was terminated and filed suit alleging race discrimination and retaliation. The district court granted the city summary judgment, prompting Ceus to appeal to the 11th Circuit. After thoroughly reviewing the factual details of Ceus’ career, the court concluded:

  • In sum, Ceus has not shown that TFR took a materially adverse action against him for engaging in a statutorily protected activity.
  • Even assuming arguendo that Ceus established a prima facie case of discrimination, Ceus has not shown that TFR’s true motivation for terminating him was retaliation and its explanations for its actions merely pretext.
  • Ceus argues that the City’s reliance on the locker vandalism to terminate him was pretext because TFR could not have had a good faith belief that Ceus vandalized Chapman’s locker.
  • Ceus did not present any evidence that the decisionmakers acted dishonestly.
  • Therefore, even if Ceus had established a prima facie case of discrimination, his claim would nevertheless fail because he failed to rebut the City’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating him.
  • Ceus … argues that summary judgment would be improper because the internal complaints and the retaliatory acts, internal investigation, and Chapman’s antagonism, taken collectively, establish a “convincing mosaic” of evidence that the decisionmaker intentionally discriminated against him.
  • This argument also fails. Chief Forward is the only individual with firing authority at TFR.
  • None of the evidence Ceus presented would lead a jury to believe Forward, a black male, intentionally discriminated against Ceus, a black male, who received warning after warning from supervisors regarding his attitude, behavior, and attendance at work.
  • Accordingly, summary judgment was appropriate and we affirm.

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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