Race Discrimination Suit Against Maryland Fire Department Survives Second Motion to Dismiss

A race discrimination lawsuit filed last year by a black firefighter against a volunteer fire company has survived a second motion to dismiss over the seminal issue of whether a volunteer is an employee under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Oscar L. Price, a 26 year veteran firefighter, is suing the Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department claiming 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.” Here is more on the original filing.

Late last year, the department sought to have the case dismissed on the grounds that volunteers cannot sue under Title VII because they are not “employees”. In a ruling issued on December 29, 2014 Judge Ellen L. Hollander concluded that whether the remuneration Price received was sufficient to make him an employee is a question of fact for the jury.

The department renewed its motion asking the court to find as a matter of law that Price was not an employee. Judge Hollander issued her second opinion in a letter ruling dated May 15, 2015.

  • When considering what constitutes an employee under Title VII, the language of the statute provides little guidance. Title VII states: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer to fail or refuse to hire . . . any individual … because of such individual’s . . . race.”
  • The Fourth Circuit has set forth a two-part test to ascertain whether an individual is an employee in a discrimination case.
  • First, the individual must demonstrate the existence of an employment relationship. …In particular, the individual must establish that, in exchange for the service provided to the employer, he or she received compensation.
  • After the threshold issue of remuneration is established, the inquiry shifts to “analyzing the facts of each employment relationship under a standard that incorporates both the common law test derived from principles of agency and the so-called ‘economic realities’ test.”
  • In my earlier Memorandum Opinion, recognizing that the package of benefits allegedly available to plaintiff in this case was a package of benefits seemingly similar to those in [Haavistola v. Fire Co. of Rising Sun, 6 F.3d 211, 221 (4th Cir. 1993)], I declined to rule that, as a matter of law, Price could not be an employee of the Department for the purposes of Title VII. …
  • I remain of the view that the issue of Price’s employment status is a question of fact that cannot be decided at this early juncture, given the procedural posture of the case, when plaintiff has not been afforded discovery.
  • In sum, I am satisfied that discovery is warranted and that a disposition on defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment would be premature. Accordingly, defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF 25) is denied, without prejudice to defendant’s right to renew it at the close of discovery.

Here is a copy of Judge Hollander’s May 15, 2015 letter ruling: 2015 5 15 Memorandum

Here is a copy of the December 29, 2014 opinion: 2014 12 29 Memorandum

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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