Maryland Volunteer Fire Company Hit With $4 Million Race Discrimination Suit

A volunteer fire company in Maryland is facing a $4 million race discrimination suit brought by a veteran firefighter who claims he has been subjected to “severe and pervasive” hostile treatment for several years.

Oscar L. Price, a 26 year veteran of the Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department, claims that since 2009 he has been “subject to discrimination and harassment by the Department’s new President Robert Sharp and new line staff: Jason Anthony, Steve McCombs, and Keith Thomas, as well as Matt Coursey, John Werkheiser, and Ray Stokes.” Price is African-American.

From the complaint:

  • As president, Mr. Sharp presided over the annual elections on December 14, 2009. Mr. Price was unable to attend the meeting and submitted his ballot to Mr. Sharp in a sealed envelope in advance of the meeting. At the meeting, Mr. Sharp made a spectacle of Mr. Price by throwing Mr. Price’s ballot in the trash in front of the entire Department. Dawn Anthony protested Mr. Sharp’s actions and was physically assaulted for her opposition. Mr. Sharp was subsequently found guilty of second degree assault in connection with his attack.
  • Mr. Price continued to volunteer his time to the Department. When Chief Jason Anthony requested that Mr. Price make himself available to clear the Department’s parking lot during snow storms on February 5, 2010 and February 10-11, 2011, Mr. Price agreed. Mr. Price informed Chief Anthony that his tractor was broken and that he would have to rent one in order to remove the snow. Chief Anthony assured Mr. Price that the Fire Department would cover the costs associated with the snow removal.
  • Acting on Chief Anthony’s assurances, Mr. Price submitted an invoice to the Fire Department in the sum of $1,950.00, which covered the cost of renting the tractor and Mr. Price’s thirty-five hours of labor. Grasonville received money from FEMA for snow removal, but retained the money. President Sharp remarked that the Department “was not going to pay his black ass,” even though Mr. Price believes the Department paid one Caucasian individual, who also cleared snow from the parking lot. To date, Mr. Price has not been reimbursed or paid for his time.
  • Shortly after the snow storms, Mr. Price noticed that his equipment had been moved without his knowledge or consent to the back of the station. Officers and line staff had also begun referring to him as “a black son of bitch” and ordering him to “get his black ass on the truck.”
  • Caucasian members of the Department would seek to embarrass and mock Mr. Price by taking pictures of themselves in stereotypical urban, gang member style.
  • In the early spring of 2010, Mr. Price filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Once the Department received notice of his charge in or around May 2010, Mr. Price’s equipment went missing. Mr. Price has reason to believe that Keith Thomas hid Mr. Price’s equipment. Mr. Price has heard that Lieutenant Keith Thomas has bragged to others that, “we took that nigger’s gear and put it in a locker and that is where it is going to stay.” On another occasion, Lieutenant Thomas told Mr. Price to “take your black ass and drive” a snowplow.
  • Without equipment, Mr. Price has not been able to respond to fires. Chief Anthony has also refused to provide a pager to Mr. Price, despite Mr. Price’s repeated requests for a new pager. The officers and line staff’s actions have effectively discharged Mr. Price from membership without affording him any due process.

Price’s complaint with the EEOC resulted in the following finding:

  • Evidence obtained during the Commission’s investigation revealed that since at least 2009 and continuing through [Mr. Price’s] active membership with [the Department] in 2010, [Mr. Price] was subjected to racial harassment in the form of offensive race-based comments made by the President and various officers, as well as finding his gear removed from his locker and placed in the back of the fire house. I find that this conduct was severe and pervasive and that because the harassers were supervisors, [the Department] may be held liable for their conduct.

The EEOC’s attempts to reach an agreement with the fire company to resolve the matter failed and Price was issued a right to sue letter on March 21, 2014.

Price’s complaint contains four counts:

  1. Race Discrimination under 42 USC 2000 (e) [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
  2. Racially Hostile Work Environment under 42 USC 2000 (e) [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]
  3. Race Discrimination under 42 USC 1981
  4. Retaliation under 42 USC 2000 (e) [Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964]

He is seeking $1,000,000 in compensatory and punitive damages on each count.

Here is the complaint: Price v Grasonville

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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