Thirty Jacksonville Firefighters Challenge Clean Shaven Requirement

Thirty Jacksonville, Florida firefighters have filed suit claiming the department’s policy that SCBA qualified firefighters be clean-shaven discriminates against them on the basis of their race and disability. All thirty are African American firefighters who suffer from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae.

The suit was filed November 23, 2020 in US District Court for the Middle District of Florida claiming a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (race discrimination), race discrimination under 42 USC §1981, race discrimination under the Florida Civil Rights Act of 1992 (FCRA), and disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

From the complaint:

  • Plaintiffs are African American male individuals who suffered discrimination based on their race and medical condition.
  • Plaintiffs are all African American firefighters who suffer from Pseudofolliculitis Barbae, a disabling or “perceived” disability” condition under the ADAA that affects approximately 45-85% of Black men.
  • Pseudofolliculitis Barbae is a medical condition that causes significant pain, severe bumps, scarring, and deformities on the skin of afflicted individuals if they shave with a razor in order to be completely clean shaven.
  • “Clean shaven” is defined as having no facial hair whatsoever, and the policy requires active duty firefighters to use a razor to meet that standard.
  • As Black men with Pseudofolliculitis Barbae, Plaintiffs cannot shave with a razor.
  • Moreover, this policy disproportionality affects Black firefighters.
  • Beginning in April 2015, Plaintiffs all received an accommodation due to their medical condition that permitted them to have close cropped facial hair that was barely noticeable, as long as they passed what is called the “fit test.”
  • Each Plaintiff took and passed a fit test on numerous occasions.
  • By the Departments own metric, the Plaintiffs could all perform their job functions with the simple accommodation that they were afforded, i.e., being permitted to be close shaven but not clean shaven.
  • However, on January 12, 2016, Plaintiffs each received a Memorandum from Kelli O’Leary, Director, Employee Services, for the City of Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, stating that effective immediately, the accommodation granted in April 2015, is now being denied.
  • As a consequence of Defendant’s actions, Plaintiffs’ accommodations were unilaterally revoked and Plaintiffs were expected to be clean shaven with a razor’s shave.
  • Defendant declared that there would be no exception to the clean shave policy for any reason as having any amount of facial hair would impact the fit of an SCBA mask.
  • Defendant based its decision on alleged OHSA violations. This reason was false.
  • Every Plaintiff passed a fit text, passed daily visual inspections at the firehouse, was able to perform their job functions.
  • When the Plaintiffs objected to this treatment, they were informed that they would be placed on light duty, which preventing them from working as firefighters.
  • Additionally, Plaintiffs would be prohibited from taking promotional test until they were clean shaven.
  • More importantly, Plaintiffs’ would have their pay reduced while on light duty.
  • The position taken by the Department is a farce, and aimed at discriminating against Plaintiffs and coercing them by taking away their ability to earn a living.

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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