Utica Fire Chief’s Son Sues City For Discrimination

The son of Utica, New York Fire Chief Russell Brooks has filed suit against the city claiming he is being discriminated against on account of his religion and gender over the length of his hair.

John Brooks, a Utica firefighter-paramedic, filed suit in US District Court in December accusing the city of discrimination for refusing to accommodate his sincerely held beliefs that require him to let his hair grow. Brooks described himself in the complaint as a Nazirite.

The complaint accuses several superior officers of singling him out and harassing him over his hair length and claims that his repeated requests for accommodations have been denied. Brooks claims he was ordered to wear a baseball cap and then a hair net, while women firefighters were permitted to keep their hair in a pony tail.

From the complaint:

  • Plaintiff, John Brooks, who is employed by Defendant as a Firefighter Paramedic is a practicing Nazirite.
  • In accordance with Plaintiffs sincerely held religious beliefs and as part of the exercise of his religion, Mr. Brooks, as a sign of devotion to God, has taken a formal oath of service to God.
  • This oath includes allowing his hair to grow uncut.
  • Plaintiff, in keeping with his sincerely held religious beliefs, refuses to cut his hair.
  • On or about January 17, 2015, Plaintiff notified Deputy Chief Michael Wusik, in writing, that he was a practicing Nazirite, that that his religious beliefs prohibited him from cutting his head hair, requested that Defendant reasonably accommodate his religious beliefs and offered to engage in the interactive process
  • On or about January 21, 2016, while on duty, Plaintiff was singled out for a uniform inspection and told that that the length of Plaintiff hair was considered out of uniform.
  • On or about January 21, 2016, Deputy Chief John Kelly, ordered Plaintiff to cut his hair by January 25, 2015 or face the possibility of being relieved of duty.
  • Upon being informed by Plaintiff that cutting his hair would violate his religious beliefs and that he (Plaintiff) was again requesting an accommodation, Deputy Chief Kelly told Plaintiff that he would forward that information to his superiors.
  • On or about January 21, 2016, in a written “Special Report” to Deputy Chief Kelly, Plaintiff explained his religious beliefs to Deputy Chief Kelly and again requested an accommodation for those religious beliefs
  • On or about January 21, 2016, Plaintiff sent Deputy Chief Kelly an e-mail requesting that an accommodation be considered before Defendant imposed discipline
  • On or about January 22, 2016, Mr. Brooks met with Lori Wrobel Rockwell, Defendant’s designated “harassment officer.”
  • On or about January 26, 2015, Ms. Rockwell informed Plaintiff that Armond Festine, Defendant’s Assistant Corporation Counsel, advised her that the reasonable accommodation policy for religious beliefs did not apply to the Utica Fire Department and refused to accept Plaintiff’s complaint of discrimination.
  • On or about January 25, 2015, Deputy Chief Kelly delivered a letter, dated January 23, 2015, from Assistant Chief George Clark addressed to Plaintiff ordering Plaintiff to cut his hair in compliance with Defendant’s existing grooming standards and for safety reasons
  • The January 23, 2015, letter from Assistant Chief Clark, also ordered Plaintiff to appear in Clark’s office on January 29, 2015 and be in compliance with the order to cut his hair or face further disciplinary action
  • On or about January 29, 2015, Plaintiff, as ordered, met with Assistant Chief Clark who interrogated Plaintiff about his religious beliefs, questioned that Nazirites are prohibited from cutting their head hair, accused Plaintiff of being “anti-establishment” and ordered Plaintiff to wear an ill-fitting baseball cap until such time as defendant’s Corporation Counsel reviewed case law regarding the need to accommodate Mr. Brooks’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
  • Assistant Chief Clark stated that the order to wear the baseball cap was not an accommodation.
  • Complainant was subjected to daily uniform inspections and threats of disciplinary action despite his repeated requests for an accommodation.
  • On or about May 1, 2015, Plaintiff was directed to report to Assistant Chief Clark’s office.
  • At the aforesaid meeting with Chief Clark, Plaintiff was ordered by Chief Clark to wear a hairnet at all time while on duty and informed that Plaintiff would he be subjected to daily inspections and would continue to be subject to disciplinary actions for practicing his religion.
  • The stated reason for the May 1, 2015 order to Plaintiff to wear a hairnet was not for safety concerns but rather to have Plaintiff conform to Defendant’s grooming policy
  • Chief Clark continued to challenge the sincerity of Plaintiff’s religious beliefs and threatened discipline if Defendant determined that Plaintiff is not a Nazirite or has never been a Nazarite and attempted to photograph Plaintiff’s appearance.
  • On or about May 5, 2016, Plaintiff sent a letter to Harassment Officer Rockwell advising her that he continued to be harassed by his superiors; and requested her assistance in stopping the harassment and retaliatory conduct, and asking her to initiate an investigation into his claims and to accept his complaint of discrimination.
  • Only after Plaintiff sent the aforesaid letter to Rockwell, followed by repeated telephone calls and personal visits to Rockwell’s office, was Plaintiff finally provided a complaint form.
  • On or about June 1, 2015, Plaintiff filed a written complaint with Rockwell.
  • Plaintiff never received a formal response from Defendant regarding the complaint he filed with Rockwell.
  • Upon information and belief Defendant did not conduct an investigation into Plaintiff’s complaint.
  • Defendant never engaged in the interactive process with Plaintiff to determine a reasonable accommodation for his religious beliefs.
  • On or about June 18, 2015, after sending the aforesaid e-mail, Deputy Chief Wusik came to Plaintiffs firehouse and confronted Plaintiff in a hostile manner.
  • Deputy Chief Wusik stated to Plaintiff, in sum and substance: “you have no respect for yourself or your father.”
  • Deputy Chief Wusik then reached up and tapped Plaintiff on the head with an envelope Wusik was holding and stated in sum and substance: “I don’t understand guys like you.”
  • Deputy Chief Wusik then smirked and scoffed when Plaintiff again attempted to explain that his religious beliefs prevented him from cutting his head hair.
  • During 2014 through the present, Defendant has employed 3 to 4 female firefighters.
  • These female firefighters
    • have the same or similar duties as Plaintiff
    • have head hair that is as long as or longer than Plaintiffs head hair.
    • are not required to cut their head hair to the same length as male firefighters.
    • are not required to wear hair nets at all times while on duty.
    • are not required to wear a baseball cap at all times while on duty.
    • are not subjected to constant threats of discipline for having long hair.
    • are never singled out for daily inspections and monitoring because of the length of their hair.
  • Defendant’s grooming policy requires that female firefighters with long hair wear their hair in a ponytail.
  • Plaintiff wears his hair in a ponytail at all times while on duty.
  • Upon information and belief, female firefighters routinely wear their long hair down except while on calls.
  • Upon information and belief, female firefighters who do not wear their long hair in a ponytail at all times while on duty are not disciplined.

The complaint alleges an assortment of Title VII religious discrimination and failure to accommodate claims as well as retaliation, disparate treatment, and state law violations under the New York State Human Rights Law.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Brooks v Utica

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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