Appeals Court Upholds Termination of Firefighter Who Alleged Race Discrimination

The Sixth US Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a trial court ruling that found that an African American firefighter recruit was not discriminated against when he was dismissed from the Toledo fire academy. Major Smith III filed suit claiming that instructors improperly trained him on a critical ventilation evolution, which he subsequently failed causing him to wash out of the academy.

Smith alleged that Caucasian firefighters were properly trained, and they were evaluated on a roof that was less demanding. The trial court concluded “Toledo bent over backwards to help Major Smith become a firefighter. He failed not because of racial discrimination, but because he was unable to perform a critical skill that firefighters need to protect their communities.”

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit concurred with the trial court. While the full decision provides more detail on the facts and reasoning, the opinion begins with the following concise summary:

  • Major Smith, III wanted to be a firefighter.
  • But he could not perform the critical firefighting skill of cutting a hole in a roof using a chainsaw.
  • The Toledo Fire and Rescue Training Academy had a policy of dismissing recruits who were unable to perform this skill after the third attempt.
  • Smith, however, was given nine chances to perform this skill; yet he failed every time.
  • He was dismissed from the Academy.
  • Smith argues that he was dismissed because of his race.
  • The district court disagreed and granted summary judgment to defendants.
  • We AFFIRM.

Judge Helene N. White dissented from the majority on Smith’s claim, concluding:

  • there is a genuine dispute of material fact about whether the City dismissed Smith from the academy because of his race…
  • Additionally, the evidence presented of past and ongoing discrimination in the department, some pertaining to others but some pertaining to Smith specifically, strengthens the inference of discrimination.
  • Chief Brian Byrd allegedly stated to Murry that he believed Smith’s termination was racially motivated.
  • And, since 2014, 80% of the recruits who were dismissed from the Academy were African American, and the remaining 20% were Hispanic, despite African Americans making up a minority of the class.
  • This further supports an inference of discrimination.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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