Houston Prevails in Race and Gender Discrimination Suit

A race and gender discrimination lawsuit filed by the estate of a Houston firefighter has been dismissed. Margaret Roberts worked as a firefighter for the Houston Fire Department from 1994 to 2016. She passed away on January 4, 2017.

Prior to her death, Roberts, an African-American, filed complaints with the EEOC. The complaints include that:

  • During an inspection, a captain singled her out and asked her to demonstrate the operation of a K-12 Saw
  • She requested and was granted a “Wellness Day”; but the following shift was denied a request for a “rider” (substitution), requiring her to use FMLA leave
  • She was denied a Wellness Day for 12 hours
  • She was transferred from an assignment at the Bush International Airport to Station 54.
  • “she was dropped from an apparatus at one station and was immediately ordered back to her station”
  • “a captain looked at her and said that a cultural change was needed at the airport”
  • “items in the women’s dorm were rearranged and missing”
  • “she was screamed at when she reported the TV in the women’s dorm was not working”

Following her death, the EEOC granted her a right to sue letter. Her widower, Daniel Roberts, opted to proceed with the suit as the executor for her estate. The suit was filed in United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas alleging (1) race and gender discrimination, (2) race and gender hostile work environment, and (3) retaliation.

On April 3, 2020, US District Court Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt granted the city’s motion for summary judgment. In ruling, Judge Hoyt concluded as follows:

RACE AND GENDER

  • The initial burden [in Title VII cases]rests with the employee to produce evidence that she: (1) is a member of a protected class, (2) was qualified for the position that she held, (3) was subject to an adverse employment action, and (4) she was treated less favorably than others similarly situated outside of her protected class.
  • In this case, it is undisputed that the plaintiff has satisfied the first two elements of her discrimination claim. She is a member of a protected class — African-American and female, and that she was qualified for the position she held.
  • There is no evidence that an adverse action was taken against her.
  • To support a Title VII discrimination claim, an “adverse employment action” must be an ultimate employment decision such as hiring, granting leave, discharging, promoting and compensating.
  • Mr. Roberts contends that his wife was denied overtime opportunities; hence, she suffered an adverse action.
  • The City maintains that there is no evidence that she was denied overtime.
  • A statement, alone without documentary or testimonial evidence is simply a conclusory statement and will not support an adverse employment action.
  • The Court has reviewed the exhibits proffered by Mr. Roberts and finds that the exhibits lack specificity regarding the denial of overtime and that he has failed to provide other evidence that overtime was denied. Therefore, the Estate’s discrimination claim fails.

HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT

  • To establish a hostile work environment claim, the plaintiff must prove that: (1) she belongs to a protected group; (2) she was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) the harassment complained of was based on race; (4) the harassment complained of affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment; and (5) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment in question and failed to take prompt remedial action.
  • The Court has reviewed the record, and notes that the decedent’s complaints regarding how she was treated during her tenure, fail to establish that any alleged treatment was directed toward her based on her race or sex. Therefore, the claim fails.

RETALIATION

  • The elements of a prima facie case [of retaliation] requires a showing that: (1) she engaged in a protected activity; (2) suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal link existed between the protected activity and the adverse action.
  • There is no evidence that the alleged harassment complained of interfered with her work performance.
  • More importantly though, there is no evidence that the decedent suffered an adverse employment action.

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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