Judge Dismisses Race Discrimination Claims of Hartford Firefighter

A US District Court judge has dismissed the race discrimination claims of a Hartford firefighter, leaving intact for now additional age discrimination claims he also brought. Tony Milledge filed suit last year in US District Court for the District of Connecticut accusing the City of Hartford and the Hartford Fire Department, with race and age discrimination.

According to the decision, Milledge is an “African-American male who has more than 20 years of service as a firefighter for the City of Hartford.” His race discrimination claims, which were brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were triggered by two incidents that occurred in March of 2018. As explained in the complaint:

  • In the first incident, “plaintiff was on a call and Chief Tenney, a younger Caucasian supervisor, began harassing the plaintiff, yelling and screaming at him inches from his face.” The complaint says nothing more about this first incident.
  • In the second incident, “plaintiff was on another call and was physically assaulted by Chief Jim Erickson, a Caucasian supervisor.” The complaint says nothing more about this second incident.
  • Milledge “complained” to two lieutenants about the second incident “but his complaint was rebuffed.” “Upon information and belief,” the complaint goes on, “the defendants have never tolerated such abuse of Caucasian firefighters by their superior officers.”

The city moved to dismiss the fire department from the suit and dismiss the race discrimination claims entirely. The city argued that the Hartford Fire Department is not a legal entity separate from the City of Hartford.  Judge Jeffrey Alker Meyer noted Milledge’s agreement with the city’s motion and dismissed the fire department from the suit.

In explaining his decision to dismiss Milledge’s race discrimination claims, Judge Meyer explained as follows:

  • When considering a motion to dismiss … a court must accept as true all factual matters alleged in a complaint, although a complaint may not survive unless the facts it recites are enough to state plausible grounds for relief.
  • In addition, a complaint cannot rely on conclusory allegations.
  • A complaint that engages in a threadbare recital of the elements of a cause of action but that fails to include supporting factual allegations does not establish plausible grounds for relief.
  • For Title VII claims of race discrimination, a complaint must allege enough facts to allow for a plausible inference that the employer took adverse action against an employee and that the employer did so because of the employee’s race. No matter how strongly a plaintiff may believe he has been victimized for improper discriminatory reasons, he must allege facts suggesting this to be so.
  • Milledge alleges enough facts to show that he was subject to verbal intimidation by one supervisor and to a physical assault by another supervisor.
  • I will assume for present purposes that these facts are enough to establish an intimidating and hostile work environment, although they are far more sparse than the detailed facts usually pleaded for such a claim.
  • What is lacking, however, are facts to suggest that any of the alleged abuse was because of Milledge’s race.
  • Milledge does not recite any statements by the two supervisors to suggest that they picked on him because of his race.
  • Nor does Milledge allege facts to suggest that race considerations generally permeated the overall working environment at the fire department-for example, that supervisors at the fire department made any remarks or engaged in any conduct reflecting race-based animus or stereotypical assumptions about race.
  • Milledge alleges that the defendants “have never tolerated such abuse of Caucasian firefighters by their superior officers.”
  • But because Milledge does not allege any of the surrounding factual context for the acts of abuse against him, it is impossible to evaluate whether Caucasian firefighters were ever in similar situations and whether the two supervisors at issue treated Caucasian firefighters more favorably than Milledge.
  • Ultimately, Milledge suggests that race discrimination may be inferred simply from the fact that he is of a different race than the two supervisors who yelled at him and assaulted him.
  • But a claim for discrimination is not made plausible simply because the person who has engaged in an adverse action is of a different race than the plaintiff.
  • “Law does not blindly ascribe to race all personal conflicts between individuals of different races,” because “[t]o do so would turn the workplace into a litigious cauldron of racial suspicion.”
  • Thus, “[t]he mere fact that [supervisors] were of a different race than [plaintiff] . . . is insufficient to permit an inference of discrimination,” because “[u]nder a contrary rule, federal anti-discrimination laws would be implicated every time an employee suffered an adverse employment action at the hands of a supervisor of a different race, religion, sex, national origin, or, conceivably in some cases, age or disability status.”

The case will proceed on Milledge’s age discrimination claim. He will also have the opportunity to amend his complaint to add additional factual allegations to support his claims. Here is a copy of the ruling:

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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