Fire Inspector Alleges Race Discrimination in Norwalk, Connecticut

Today’s Burning Question: I am a firefighter who did not get a promotion because of my race and its not right. I was senior to the guy who they gave the promotion to. I scored 9 points higher on the written exam – which I consider to be a truly objective measure since race can’t be factored in. Not surprisingly the fire chief says he did better than me on the oral exam – enough to overcome a total of 14 points from seniority and exam scores but that is so subjective. On top of that the panel for the oral had two members of “his” race and only one of mine. Do I have a case?

Answer: In my twenty-seven years of practicing law, I have been asked a question like this dozens of times. In each and every case the person who claimed to have been discriminated against was white. That is not the case in Norwalk, Connecticut where Fire Inspector Broderick Sawyer claims he was passed over for promotion to deputy fire marshal because he was black. The promotion went to Chris Hansen, who is white. Sawyer scored an 83 on the written exam to Hansen’s 74. Sawyer is senior. But Hanson apparently did substantially better on the oral exam… enough to overcome the 14 point advantage Sawyer had going in. That prompted Sawyer to file a complaint with the EEOC.

Norwalk Councilman David A. Watts seems to have taken up Sawyer’s cause, and even predicted the matter will be resolved soon. The number of minorities on the department has dropped from 14 in 2001 to 6 today, raising additional concerns about racial conditions in the department.

Sawyer was quoted in the Norwalk Patch as claiming he’s also been the victim of racial harassment within the fire department, but those claims sound a bit less than conclusive. Sawyer told a reporter that someone left a paper plate on his desk in 2010 saying “You da man” after he asked for a performance evaluation. He also claims someone left a baby’s pacifier on his desk. Sounds like stretch there… Geeze kid, you have a pretty solid prima facia case of race discrimination. Forget the small stuff – stick with your strongest argument and above all don’t go shooting yourself in the foot by saying too much… oh … wait a minute, did you say you had a problem with the oral exam?

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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