Denver Race Discrimination Case Closer to Trial

A Denver fire lieutenant who claims he has been subjected to race discrimination and retaliation since 2006 will finally have his day in court.

US District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled on January 2, 2013 that Lieutenant Thomas R. Lewis has presented enough evidence to get his case to a jury. Lt. Lewis claims that beginning in 2006 he has been harassed and retaliated against on the basis of race, and that it culminated his demotion from the rank of lieutenant. He also complains that he was punished with a transfer, and subjected to a malicious criminal prosecution.

According to the complaint: “At all times material hereto, Mr. Lewis satisfactorily performed his job duties, including receiving a commendation in December 2006.” His problems began in 2006 when he stood up to a white assistant chief on behalf of another African American firefighter who was wrongly denied an assignment despite being senior. He claims the chief threatened “to look into pursuing disciplinary actions against” Lt. Lewis.

Lt. Lewis alleges that the chief then falsely and without justification accused him of shoving a white subordinate firefighter. When those charges proved unfounded the same chief falsely accusing him of “engaging in intimidating, threatening, or hostile behaviors, physical assaults, or other acts of this nature”.  Lt. Lewis received a written reprimand ostensibly because he sang a pop song in the station.

Lt. Lewis filed a discrimination and retaliation complaint with the EEOC and then filed suit against the department and the white chief on January 5, 2009.

According to a Denver based employment blog, the very next day, January 6, 2009, Lt. Lewis was wrongly transferred and demoted. Shortly thereafter he was accused of engaging in a verbal altercation with an employee of a Verizon store. The department initiated an investigation which Lt. Lewis claims unlawfully resulted in criminal charges being filed against him, charges that were later dropped.

The blog continues:

Mr. Lewis appears to have strong evidence of unlawful employment practices by the Denver Fire Department. It appears that the Denver Fire Department subjected Mr. Lewis to retaliation soon after complaining about race discrimination, and then went out of its way to falsify evidence in a sustained effort to procure Mr. Lewis’s criminal conviction for a crime it knew that he did not commit. We applaud Mr. Lewis’s determined efforts to overcome the largely infinite resources of the government in order to have his day in court.

Here is a copy of the complaint. Lewis Complaint

Complaints typically present a one sided version of the allegations, as do some blogs from time to time. Fortunately in this case we also have a court ruling that lays out the facts a bit more objectively. Here are some of the details that the complaint conveniently omitted (italics is quoted material):

  • Prior to 2006 Mr. Lewis had several disciplinary complaints. He was late to work and received a 12 hour suspension. In 2001 Mr. Lewis was seen entering a residence that was known by Denver police to be a crack cocaine house. After leaving the house Mr. Lewis was pulled over by Denver police for failing to stop at a stop sign. At the time, Mr. Lewis was driving a vehicle owned by the Denver Fire Department, and he did not have a driver’s license. There was also some speculation as to whether Mr. Lewis had been drinking. Mr. Lewis was not cited by the Denver police officers, but the incident was reported to the Denver Fire Department. Mr. Lewis received an 80 hour suspension from the Manager of Safety.
  • The transfer on January 6, 2009 was necessitated in order to separate Lt. Lewis from the accused chief, who was named as a defendant in the suit.
  • On February 13, 2009 Mr. Lewis, while off duty, was involved in an altercation with a Verizon store employee. During the altercation, the Verizon employee, Todd Strong, asked Mr. Lewis what he did, and Mr. Lewis responded that he worked for Denver Fire Department. Mr. Strong sent an email to the Denver Fire Department requesting an apology from Mr. Lewis and the Denver Fire Department. The facts of what occurred during the altercation are disputed by the parties. The next day, February 14, 2009, Mr. Lewis came to the fire station agitated and yelling. …Mr. Lewis [was placed] on administrative leave and informed … that the Denver Fire Department’s internal affairs office would investigate the complaint from Mr. Strong.
  • After the investigation, Deputy Chief King determined that Mr. Lewis should be demoted.
  • [T]he Notice of Final Disciplinary Action… explained that the Verizon incident showed a pattern of “being rude to, intimidating and threatening people.” [It] cited that over the past four years at least six firefighters requested transfers from being under Mr. Lewis’s supervision because of his behavior towards them.

Here is a copy of the court’s ruling from January 2, 2013. Lewis Order

So it appears that we have a some facts in contention – facts that a simple reading of the complaint would not otherwise indicate. A quick search of the US District Court docket for the state of Colorado also shows that Lt. Lewis filed a civil suit against Mr. Strong and Verizon for race discrimination. That case was dismissed in 2010 following a ruling that granted the defendants summary judgment.

One final note for the legal eagles out there: you may note from the complaint that Lt. Lewis’s attorney filed suit as a civil rights action against the Denver Fire Department. For those who slept through Civil Procedure and Federal Courts: “After Monell courts have dismissed § 1983 claims that have sought to impose liability directly upon municipal and county departments rather than the municipalities themselves. … The City and County of Denver, not the Denver Fire Department, is the proper defendant under § 1983. Accordingly, summary judgment is granted for the Denver Fire Department.”

Ouch… but the case against the individual defendants continues.

And a final note for even the non-legal eagles out there: taking a case like this to trial can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars… perhaps even over $100,000… for each side. Then there is the uncertainty of how a jury will view the facts. It is why cases often settle on the eve of trial.

We know that race discrimination continues to rear it ugly head and when it is found to occur, it needs to be addressed. We also know it is easy to play the race card.  In Lewis v. Denver FD, it would appear to be one or the other – and maybe this case is one that needs to go all the way in order to give both sides some measure of closure.

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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