LA Firefighter Sues for Race Discrimination

A veteran Los Angeles City firefighter has filed suit against the city and up to 100 unnamed  firefighters claiming he was harassed and discriminated against because he is African American, and then retaliated against once he complained.

Firefighter-Paramedic Emanuel Brown filed the suit Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court alleging three counts of discrimination and retaliation under state law. At the center of Brown’s allegation was an incident that happened on Easter, 2017, when he discovered fecal matter in the apparatus compartment where he kept his turnout gear. Brown is a 10 year LAFD veteran.

From the complaint:

  • Beginning in or around April 2017 to present, on a continuing and ongoing basis, Plaintiff has been subject to numerous acts of race-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation for speaking out against and reporting inappropriate and unlawful practices within the LAFD.
  • On Easter morning, April 19, 2017, Plaintiff found fecal matter inside the driverside compartment of his rescue vehicle (ambulance). Specifically, the fecal matter was found inside the compartment that is used exclusively by the driver of such vehicle. Plaintiff stored his Personal Protective Equipment, including his breathing apparatus, turn-out jacket, and oxygen tank in this compartment. Moreover, the rescue vehicle was assigned solely to Plaintiff on the days he worked.
  • The LAFD has a history of fecal matter being used as discriminatory acts against its African American Firefighters and personnel. As such, this act was directed at Plaintiff with racial animus.
  • Thereafter, Plaintiff spoke to his crew, all of who denied any knowledge of the fecal substance, before taking up the issue with his Captain. Thereafter, family of FS 21 personnel came out to the station to visit those who worked the holiday. Plaintiffs wife, had a strange interaction with Firefighter Marcus Meza who tried to shake her hand while his was noticeably dirty.
  • The next day, on or around April 20, 2017, Plaintiff engaged in protected activity and contacted Captain II Eric Roberts to report the discriminatory act. Robert was disgusted by the discriminatory conduct and placed the complaint with Professional Standards Bureau (PSD) as is common LAFD practice and custom, and urged Plaintiff to report the incident to his direct supervisor, Captain John Smith.
  • Thereafter on the same day, Plaintiff again engaged in protected activity and contacted Captain Smith to report the discriminatory conduct. Smith responded by asking if Plaintiff was “sure [he] wanted to do this.”
  • Plaintiff is unsure if Smith ever followed LAFD procedure by placing a complaint with PSD.
  • On or around April 25, 2017, Plaintiff again addressed the crew at FS 21. Plaintiff specifically questioned Firefighter Marcus Meza, who denied any knowledge of the incident.
  • On or around May 10, 2017, Plaintiff received formal acknowledgement from PSD of his complaint, corroborating that Captain Roberts did in fact report the complaint to PSD on April 20, 2017. Plaintiff responded to the notice and wrote a letter stating that the use of feces on African American Firefighters is a known racist act that has been committed in the past at the LAFD, specifically within FS 14, commonly known as a “Black [African American] Free Zone.”
  • On or around June 27, 2017, PSD Captain Patterson interviewed Plaintiff as part of the ongoing investigation into Plaintiffs complaint. In retaliation against Plaintiff for engaging in protected activity and in further discrimination against Plaintiff on the basis of his race, Captain Patterson refused to allow Plaintiff to record the interview, thereby violating Plaintiffs rights under the Firefighters Bill of Rights.
  • On or around February 23, 2018, Plaintiff contacted PSD to inquire on the status of the complaint. Plaintiff was informed that two investigators were assigned to the investigation and that it was still an ongoing investigation.
  • Also on February 23, 2018, Plaintiff was contacted by a Los Angeles Times reporter regarding the incident and about going on the record about what happened. On or about February 24, 2018, Plaintiff contacted Assistant Chief Roy Harvey, a well-respected African American veteran of the LAFD, and informed him about the fecal matter incident and that he had been contacted by the Los Angeles Times. Plaintiff wanted Harvey’s advice on the matter and Harvey informed him that he should not ignore the discriminatory acts.
  • On or around February 27, 2018, Plaintiff spoke to Captain Lillenburg about the fecal matter incident and about speaking to the Los Angeles Times. Lillenburg cautioned Plaintiff that doing so would be a bad idea.
  • Later that evening, Plaintiff spoke to his crew under belief they would understand the gravity and history of using fecal matter as a discriminatory act against African Americans and support Plaintiffs speaking to the Los Angeles Times. Several Firefighters including Firefighter Jose Rodriguez, Apparatus Operator John Theodore, and Engineer Nick Rideal expressed disagreement in Plaintiffs plan to speak with the Los Angeles Times.
  • Later than night, or around 8:30 p.m., Engineer Carlos Chavez, Theodore, and Plaintiff were showering in the locker room. Chavez exclaimed to Plaintiff “show me your dick, faggot.” Theodore then stood behind Plaintiff and whispered, “I’ve got your back,” awkwardly implying a homosexual advancement. Such comments from Plaintiffs crew had never occurred prior to his disclosure of speaking to the Los Angeles Times.
  • On or around March 4, 2018, while Plaintiff was in the computer room, Apparatus Operator De La Cruz passed the room, looked at Plaintiff, and yelled, “No Retaliation!” De La Cruz was harassing and mocking Plaintiffs complaint of discrimination to his Captains.
  • For an indefinite time thereafter, Firefighter Rodriguez would further harass Plaintiff by making cork-popping noises whenever Plaintiff walked into the room, insinuating that he was de-flowering Plaintiff. Such conduct went on for over six-months in further discrimination against Plaintiff and in retaliation for engaging in protected activity.
  • Also on March 4, 2018, Theodore casually mentioned to Plaintiff the importance of having a living trust, implying that his death was likely and warranted a living trust.
  • Thereafter, Theodore suggested they watch a video, which Captain Lillenburg played, displaying New York Firefighters repelling off a building. Theodore then informed Plaintiff that the drill of the day would be repelling from a three-story window using a belay-line, a drop-bag, and a 150-foot-long, 5/16’s-inch wide rope, which Plaintiff knew to be uncommon and dangerous.
  • Plaintiff then checked the posted schedule of drills, which did not show the repelling exercise Theodore purported was scheduled. Moreover, Plaintiff knew that the use of a drop-bag was in violation of LAFD regulations. Plaintiff knew that such a drill was an attempt to intimidate further retaliate against Plaintiff, recalling the instance where another African American Firefighter was discriminated and left dangling sideways from the same building. Said Firefighter left FS 21 shortly thereafter the incident.
  • Thereafter, Theodore and Plaintiff head up to the third story to conduct the drill.
  • Firefighter Westmoreland, who was present, mentioned that someone may die from such a training drill, further trying to intimidate Plaintiff. Plaintiff believed he would be injured if he attempted the dangerous and reckless drill, which was only being conducted in retaliation against Plaintiff for complaining about the fecal matter incident. As Plaintiff was preparing for the drill, Plaintiffs crew was called out for a structure fire.
  • After putting out the fire, Plaintiff and the crew were assigned to stage at Hollywood High School. While walking inside, Theodore looked at Plaintiff and said, “He [Plaintiff] is playing right into our hands.” Thereafter, Firefighter Rodriguez taunted Plaintiff stating he was lucky they were called out to the fire and called Plaintiff a “chocolate piece of shit.”
  • Plaintiff continued to be harassed this day by his crew in retaliation for reporting the fecal incident and in further discrimination against Plaintiff on the basis of his race. Captain Dejong made statements to the effect of “Let’s see if he [Plaintiff] is as smart as he thinks.”
  • Apparatus Operator De La Cruz questioned if Dejong felt sorry for Plaintiff, and another unknown member stated they should place a game of “Two Bounce,” a physical contact game played to determine who will wash the dishes, then looked at Plaintiff as he stated Plaintiff might get hurt.
  • These comments along with the actions earlier in the day gave Plaintiff the impression that his crew was out to hurt him. As a result of this harassment, Plaintiff contacted Assistant Chief Roy Harvey (“Harvey”), an African American, who arrived at the high school. None of Plaintiffs crew bothered him after Harvey arrived.
  • Immediately upon returning to FS 21, Plaintiff, fearing for his personal safety, grabbed an “F18” form, commonly known as an employee-initiated transfer form, and put in for a transfer to Fire Station 94. Captain Lillenburg witnessed this and instead of putting an end to the harassment Plaintiff was enduring, informed Plaintiff that he was signing his life away.
  • On or around the morning of March 5, 2018, Plaintiff walked into the station’s kitchen for coffee. Apparatus Operator Dean Bennett (“Bennett”) mocked Plaintiff by asking how much sugar Plaintiff would be putting into his coffee, insinuating that Plaintiff was soft and weak.
  • As a result of the constant harassment, discrimination and retaliation, Plaintiff called Battalion Chief Reddix to make a PSD complaint. Instead, Battalion Chief Peralta answered the phone. Plaintiff engaged in protected activity and explained the sequence of events to Peralta, who had no knowledge about what had been going on at FS 21, which is Peralta’s station.
  • Peralta’s lack of awareness indicated to Plaintiff that his initial complaint was stale and had not been properly and thoroughly investigated.
  • Immediately after, Battalion Chief Reddix called Plaintiff, and Plaintiff reported to Reddix that he felt his personal safety was in jeopardy. Reddix downplayed the severity of the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation Plaintiff was being subjected to by asking if the call was a “counseling call.” Thereafter, Assistant Chief Villanueva called Plaintiff, and Plaintiff again reported the same conduct to Villanueva. Upon information and belief, none of these Chiefs followed proper LAFD protocol to initiate a complaint for misconduct.
  • On or around March 7, 2018, Plaintiff, accompanied by Battalion Chief Reddix, went to FS 21 to pick up his personal belongings. Also on this day, Plaintiff spoke to Battalion Chief Peralta, who wanted to confirm that it was Plaintiffs choice to transfer out of FS 21; Plaintiff conveyed that he had no choice but to transfer due to the ongoing discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. After loading up his belongings, Battalion Chief Reddix and Assistant Chief Villanueva invited Plaintiff to a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop. There, Reddix and Villanueva tried to confirm that Plaintiffs transfer out of FS 21 was voluntary. Plaintiff denied it was voluntary, but rather a forced transfer to get away from the harassment and retaliation.
  • Moreover, Villanueva informed Plaintiff that Captain Hart placed Plaintiff on a “threat list,” further discriminating and retaliating against Plaintiff.
  • On or around March 13, 2018, Plaintiff submitted a second complaint to PSD, wherein Plaintiff reported that he was being retaliated, harassed, and discriminated on the account of his race and for reporting such discriminatory misconduct and harassment.
  • Later that day, Plaintiff spent his first day at FS 91 with Chief Villanueva. During a meeting with others present Villanueva jokingly stated to Plaintiff “You know we own you right.” When Plaintiff asked for clarification, or around March 15, 2018, Villanueva backtracked and stated that the Department and Battalion 13 own Plaintiff.
  • Plaintiff is informed and believes that command staff at FS 21 were in violation of LAFD’s policy and procedure in failing to transfer out the harassers pending resolution of Plaintiffs complaint with PSD. As a result, Plaintiff was forced to remain at FS 21 with the harassers and endure further discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, which in turn led to his involuntary transfer.
  • On or around April 8, 2018, Captain Eric Nelson handed Plaintiff a notice from PSD indicating his fecal matter complaint was closed due to insufficient evidence. Nelson stated to Plaintiff “I guess these are your walking papers.”
  • As a result of transferring out of FS 21, Plaintiff lost out on a HAZMA T bonus and FLSA bonus. He also lost the coveted position at FS 21 where he did not have to rotate assignments and remained exclusively assigned the Paramedic assignment.
  • On a continuing and ongoing basis, Plaintiff is being retaliated against and harassed based on his race and additionally being retaliated against for reporting discriminatory conduct within the LAFD.
  • Plaintiffs career has been materially and adversely affected, and irreparably harmed
  • and damaged by the conduct of the Defendants. Plaintiff was discriminated and retaliated against on the basis of his race, and was further discriminated, harassed, and retaliated against for engaging in protected activity and reporting the discriminatory conduct he was being subjected to.
  • After suffering such discrimination and harassment, he spoke out and formally reported the misconduct of various Supervisors and Command Staff of FS 21 and to PSD. As a direct and proximate consequence of reporting such misconduct-which constitutes protected activity under state and federal law-Defendants, and each of them, retaliated against, discriminated against, and harassed Plaintiff and subjected Plaintiff to adverse employment actions. Those adverse employment actions include but are not limited to: being denied a work environment free of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, forced to transfer out of FS 21, damage to his reputation, and interference with Plaintiffs ability to do his job.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Brown v City of Los Angeles

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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