Massachusetts Firefighter Files Race Discrimination Suit

A veteran Massachusetts firefighter is suing his department for disparate treatment-race discrimination, retaliation, and a racially hostile work environment. Lee Gilliam filed suit this week in Middlesex County Superior Court naming the City of Newton and the Newton Fire Department as defendants.

Gilliam, who is identified in the complaint as being African American, claims was subjected to a racially hostile work environment brought about by the offensive comments of colleagues and supervisors. The complaint attributes much of the problem to the fact that there are only ten African American firefighters on the Newton Fire Department.

As explained in the complaint:

  • This racial imbalance and failure to diversify has fostered and perpetuated a hostile environment where Caucasian firefighters generally feel free to make insensitive and degrading comments concerning African Americans without consequence.
  • Many individuals in charge within the Department foster these racist attitudes and ideals.
  • In 2008, Lt. James Trudo, a Caucasian male who holds a position of power over Gilliam, used the word ‘N-word’ with the intent of degrading Gilliam.
  • This greatly upset Gilliam.
  • Gilliam discussed this matter with Lt. Trudo and expressed that he was upset by Lt. Truda’s use of the racially charged, derogatory slur.
  • In response, Lt. Trudo said that Gilliam “shouldn’t be upset” about the use of the word as it is used by African Americans in rap songs and in reference to one another.
  • This matter was investigated by the Fire Department and Lt. Trudo was found to have used the racial slur.
  • As a result of this encounter, Gilliam was transferred to a different unit and was told that he would not have to work with Lt. Trudo any longer.
  • In October 2012, Gilliam was called a “‘House” N-word’ and “cornbread” by a fellow firefighter.
  • After an investigation, The City dismissed this firefighter, but failed to implement any substantive change concerning racially insensitive comments that permeated the firehouses.
  • In March 2013, Gilliam was transferred units for a second time. Gilliam was told he was being removed from his unit and placed in a new one because Lt. Trudo was being transferred to the unit Gilliam was then assigned to.
  • In other words, the Department uprooted Gilliam to place Lt. Trudo (who admittedly used the “N-word” in the past) in his preferred position.
  • In 2017, despite assurances from the Fire Chief that Gilliam would not have to work with Lt. Trudo, Gilliam was again placed in a unit where he came into frequent contact with Lt. Trudo.
  • On June 6, 2018, Gilliam applied for a Rescue l position.
  • With fourteen years of experience and extensive outside training Gilliam was clearly qualified and, if chosen, the position would have allowed Gilliam to utilize his skill set.
  • Gilliam did not receive the position. Instead the position was given to a Caucasian firefighter with significantly less experience, training and skills than Gilliam possessed.
  • After applying to the Rescue 1 position, Gilliam learned that Lt. Trudo was being placed in charge of Rescue 1.
  • It later became known that while Assistant Chief Lucchetti was heavily involved in the hiring decisions for Rescue 1, it was Lt. Trudo who made the final recommendation.
  • On June 15, 2018 after the decision had been made, Gilliam asked Lt. Trudo why he was not selected for the Rescue 1 position when he was clearly more qualified than the chosen applicant.
  • Instead of privately discussing the matter with Gilliam, Lt. Trudo confronted him in front of the entire firehouse.
  • Lt. Trudo told Gilliam that he “lacked intelligence.”
  • As Gilliam walked by Lt. Trudo, he called him a “monkey” under his breath and then went on to publicly belittle him further in front of his supervisors and colleagues.
  • In June 2018, members of the Department began a discussion about Confederate monuments and flags that had been vandalized.
  • Several of the firefighters, including Lt. Trudo, became upset about Confederate flags being taken down.
  • These individuals claimed that the monuments and flags were an “important part of history,” and that there was no reason to change things.
  • These individuals also claimed that the “situation for blacks had progressed enough since slavery.”
  • All comments were knowingly made in the presence of Gilliam.
  • These racially insensitive, overtly hateful comments shocked Gilliam.
  • As a result, he began to suffer greatly from emotional distress.
  • On June 20, 2018, Gilliam went to the Chief of the Fire Department to discuss this repeated harassment and inappropriate racial comments and discussions.
  • The Chief expressed that he thought it was best for Gilliam to transfer and initiated swift transfer proceedings.
  • This marked the third time that Gilliam was transferred due to the racial attitudes of Lt. Trudo and others within the Department.
  • After this transfer, Gilliam continued to experience hostility from the other Caucasian firefighters due to his race and because of the complaints he had raised about the racial insensitivity of Lt. Trudo and the other firefighters.
  • For example, Gilliam was present at a dumpster fire and several firefighters asked Gilliam if it would upset him if they called it “White Trash.”
  • As 2018 progressed, Gilliam found his emotional distress increasing in severity as he continued to be the subject of racial slurs, demeaning comments and racial insensitivities.
  • His afflictions included anxiety, depression, rage, humiliation, and loss of self-esteem.
  • This stress eventually led to Gilliam suffering a breakdown.
  • Subsequently, Gilliam was hospitalized in October 2018 for three weeks.
  • On October 3, 2019, Gilliam’s confidential medical information was made public by Captain D’ Agostino who printed and distributed Gilliam’s confidential medical records throughout the Department.
  • This action was done to continue to embarrass and humiliate Gilliam because of his complaints concerning racial issues in the Fire Department.
  • The racial comments made in front of Gilliam continued through 2019 and 2020.
  • On May 31, 2020, while working with Gilliam, Lt. Matt Zagami made several remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement in an attempt to justify the death of George Floyd.
  • Lt. Zagami stated that the looting, which had occurred during certain BLM protests, was a more important issue than the death of George Floyd because looting had economic impacts whereas George Floyd was “resisting the police” and thus deserved to be killed.
  • On June 1, 2020, mid-way through a shift with Gilliam, Lt. Zagami told Gilliam that his family “did not own slaves” and “made it” in America because they did not play the “victim” card in the way that he perceives the African American community to do.
  • On June 5, 2020, while seated at the kitchen table at the Department during a shift change, Firefighter Peter Leone told Gilliam that he and his father were prepared, possessed fire arms and would be waiting on their porch in case they felt threatened by “those looters.”
  • In the evening of June 13, 2020 while referencing the death of Eric Garner who was killed by New York City Police, Lt. Zagami again justified the actions of law enforcement officials by stating “[h]e shouldn’t have been selling loose cigarettes.”
  • These facts clearly indicate a severe pattern of racism and racist individuals that has infiltrated the Newton Fire Department at all levels, including Lieutenants and Chiefs.
  • This tolerance of racial insensitivity and bias has not only been tolerated but has been perpetuated by firefighters, lieutenants, and chiefs alike for over a decade and unfortunately at the expense of Gilliam’s health and wellbeing.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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