Washington State Firefighter Sues For Discrimination

A Washington state firefighter has filed suit claiming he was denied full-time employment and removed from a part-time position on account of his Middle-Eastern descent and non-citizenship.

Damon Winters filed suit in April in US District Court in Seattle against the City of Lynden and Assistant Chief Robert Spinner. The fourteen count complaint accuses Chief Spinner of engaging in a variety of discriminatory actions based upon Winters’ Arab-Egyptian ethnicity.

According to the complaint, Winters “was born in Egypt, is a citizen of Egypt and Canada, and was a lawfully admitted permanent resident of the United States from December 29, 2010 until March 1, 2016, the day he became a United States citizen. He is not white or Caucasian. His ancestry, ethnicity, and race is Arab Egyptian.”

Winters attended the Washington State Fire Training Academy in 2011 and served as a volunteer firefighter in North Whatcom Fire and Rescue and Whatcom County Fire District No. 8. He joined the Lynden Fire Department in 2013 as a volunteer and later served as a part-time firefighter. He claims he was wrongly denied full-time employment and removed from his part-time position by Chief Spinner.

Among the allegations of discriminatory bias, Winters claims Chief Spinner regularly referred to him as:

  • “the Egyptian,” “the terrorist,” “the resident terrorist,” “Habib, the terrorist,” and “Dirka Dirka,” a derogatory term referring to things Muslim, Arabic, or Middle Eastern, or to things related to terrorists or terrorism.
  • Spinner often complains that Winters “stinks up” the kitchen with his “ethnic food” and “Indian crap,” despite Winters cooking the same or similar food as other firefighters.
  • Commenting about an old salad with fruit flies in the refrigerator, Spinner said, “It’s some shit your people would eat, right Damon? Extra protein, right Damon?”
  • He has made other comments, including “your greasy Egyptian hair,” “oh, he’s Egyptian, what does he know,” “just wear a turban, greasy Egyptian hair,” “turban heads are dirty and they all stink like curry,” “curly-headed Egyptian fucker,” and “fucking Canadians are idiots.”
  • Spinner made these kinds of comments routinely, during nearly every shift Winters worked, and over a long period of time.

The complaint also alleges:

  • Soon after Winters started as a volunteer firefighter with the Lynden Fire Department in 2013, Spinner sarcastically and with animus asked Winters if he could “even work for the City” because he was “not a U.S. citizen.” Winters responded that neither his job application nor the job description stated any citizenship requirement. To this, Spinner replied, “Yeah, well, I should look into that and change it.”
  • Spinner created, conducted and scored the examination [for full time positions], in violation of the Civil Service Rules. He knew which exam belonged to each examinee, and marked exams as each examinee finished, in violation of the Civil Service Rules.
  • Spinner has a history and pattern of ignoring, manipulating, bending and breaking civil service and other rules to achieve his own ends, including selection of firefighters he personally wants to hire.

The city and Chief Spinner have answered the complaint. According to the answer:

  • Defendants’ actions were taken for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons.
  • Defendants exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any unlawful harassing behavior and Plaintiff unreasonably failed to take advantage of corrective opportunities provided by his employer or to otherwise avoid harm.
  • Defendant’s policy was based on a bona fide occupational qualification.

My assumption is the policy mentioned in the Defendants’ answer refers to the city’s policy against hiring non-citizens.

Here is a copy of the Complaint: Winters v Lynden COMPLAINT

Here is a copy of the Answer: Winters v Lynden ANSWER

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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