Philadelphia Captain Loses Race Discrimination Suit Over BC Test

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Philadelphia fire captain who claims his test scores for promotion to battalion chief were tossed in retaliation for previous race discrimination claims he made.

Captain James Williamson filed suit against the Philadelphia Fire Department last year claiming race discrimination and retaliation. According to the decision:

  • Plaintiff and four other applicants attempted to fill out the online application to be placed on the eligibility list, but they were unable to complete it because of problems with the online system.
  • The applicants complained to their union, which initiated a grievance.
  • While the grievance being arbitrated, the applicants were allowed to take the promotional exam.
  • After the grievance was denied, the scores of the five applicants were dismissed.
  • Plaintiff alleges that Defendants retaliated again him for filing the 2010 lawsuit and filing the grievance, and discriminated against him on the basis of race.

Two years earlier, Williamson had filed a state-court lawsuit alleging systemic irregularities and racial discrimination in the promotional testing process for Battalion Chiefs. He lost that action.

On the retaliation claim, Judge Cynthia M. Rufe concluded:

  • In order to demonstrate the requisite causal link [for retaliation between the past litigation and the refusal to allow Williamson to sit for the exam], plaintiffs typically must allege either “(1) an unusually suggestive temporal proximity between the protected activity and the allegedly retaliatory action, or (2) a pattern of antagonism coupled with timing to establish a causal link.”
  • With regard to the 2010 lawsuit, there is no temporal proximity between the conclusion of the earlier lawsuit and the adverse action, and no allegations of any intervening antagonism.
  • In addition, Plaintiff alleges that he was treated the same as four other fire captains who were unable to complete the online application, which raises a clear inference that the lawsuit was not the factor motivating Defendants’ actions.
  • With regard to the filing of the grievance, Defendants’ actions cannot logically constitute retaliation. Plaintiff’s union filed the grievance challenging the application procedure for the promotion; once the grievance was denied, Defendants removed Plaintiff from the promotion list as the decision permitted them to do.

As for the race discrimination claim, Judge Rufe concluded:

  • To state a claim for discrimination based on race, Plaintiff must allege that (1) he is a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the promotion he sought; (3) he was not promoted; and (4) the non-promotion occurred under circumstances that give rise to an inference of discrimination.
  • Plaintiff has alleged the first three elements, but has alleged no facts that would give rise to an inference of discrimination.
  • The Amended Complaint alleges that the applicants who were unable to complete the online application were all the same race, but does not allege any actions by Defendants that interfered with the application process, or that any other applicants for the promotion to Fire Battalion Chief were treated more favorably than he was.
  • Therefore, the discrimination claim also will be dismissed.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Williamson v Philadelphia OPINION

Here is a copy of the original complaint: Williamson v Philadelphia COMPLAINT

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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