Apology Leads to Settlement of NC Discrimination Suit

An apology read today in open court paved the way for a settlement of a race discrimination suit involving the Caldwell County, North Carolina, Emergency Services Division.

Gail Colbert, a billing specialist for Caldwell County EMS, claimed that the former director, Tommy Courtner, had created a racially hostile workplace. Colbert is black and Courtner is white.

Colbert’s suit characterized Courtner’s conduct as extreme and outrageous. The HickoryRecord.com cited letters submitted by Colbert’s coworkers and filed in the court record as stating:

  • “Courtner ma[d]e comments to Colbert about monkeys and bananas. He also would turn out the light in Colbert’s office, ‘And yell Gail smile so I can see where you’re at.’”
  • “Courtner was disrespectful to all women he worked around. He always had some type of sexual comment or gesture. He would discuss his sexual encounters in detail, to [a male employee]’s embarrassment”
  • “Courtner also was disrespectful to black people, calling them the “N” word and would refer to Colbert as a monkey and the “N” word.”
  • “Courtner made [one female employee’s] jaw dropped in disbelief. She said Courtner made comments about Colbert to fellow employees in front of members of the public and customers.”
  • “Courtner once took a photo of Colbert while she was eating a banana and printed it out and hung it up in the office and laughed about it.”

Courtner left Caldwell County in January 2011 and now serves as the fire chief for the Hudson Fire Department. Colbert filed suit in January 2013 claiming she was experiencing ongoing psychological harm. According to her psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Cappelletty, Colbert “was embarrassed and humiliated and reported experiencing depressive symptoms, sleep disturbances, sadness, fear of retaliation, discomfort in going to work and general sadness and self-defeating thoughts.”

Courtner read a letter aloud in court stating: “I am certainly sorry for all the things that I said or did, which caused you embarrassment, harm or offense…. It was never my intention for this to happen. I understand that racial remarks are not appropriate for our work place.” The terms of the settlement have not been released.

More on the story.

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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