Court Rules Against Alabama Firefighter’s Discrimination Suit

A lawsuit filed by an Alabama firefighter who claims his termination was due to his race and military service, has been dismissed. Deatri J. Larry filed suit in 2019 claiming his salary was reduced, he was passed over for promotion, and he was ultimately terminated after returning from a combat deployment.

Larry was injured during a military deployment in 2014-2017, and upon his return could no longer perform the duties of a firefighter. As explained in the decision:

  • Plaintiff is an African-American who was employed as a Fire Service Driver with the City of Mobile’s Fire-Rescue Department.
  • During his employment with MFRD, Plaintiff was deployed by the Army Reserves on multiple occasions to include 2003-2004, 2006-2008, 2010-2011, and 2014-2017.
  • Plaintiff returned to the MFRD on February 6, 2017 after his last deployment.
  • During that deployment he experienced significant injuries as the result of his military service, most notably a severe back injury and related nerve damage received during combat.
  • Upon his return to the MFRD on February 6, 2017, he underwent a fitness for duty examination at the Occupational Health Center.
  • The doctor who examined him determined that Plaintiff could not perform the essential job functions of paramedic (his position prior to his deployment) and would present a direct threat to himself or others if he attempted to perform the job.
  • MFRD (then led by Acting Chief Pappas) placed him in an administrative role in the MFRD Emergency Medical Services Staff Division to accommodate for his military-service connected injuries.
  • MFRD discontinued his paramedic incentive pay which resulted in a 20% reduction of his overall pay.
  • In May 2017, Chief Sealy was selected as the new Chief of MFRD after a three-year vacancy in the position filled by an Acting Chief.
  • As part of [his] strategic vision, Chief Sealy discussed the need to reduce the number of “staff positions” and a restructuring of leadership including a reduction in the number of chief positions through retirements and attrition.
  • In March 2019, Plaintiff took another promotional examination and his score ranked him twelfth on the promotion list.
  • The top six candidates were promoted to Captain on May 11, 2019. The next two candidates were promoted in August 2019.
  • In August 2019, Plaintiff and Mark Shobe both received letters which identified them as employees who could not perform the full functions of their positions.
  • Two other employees (Richard McMillian and Dexter Pettway) received the same letters a few months later.
  • Shobe and McMillian elected to apply for disability retirement.
  • Plaintiff, through his counsel, conveyed that he did not accept the options presented and would not voluntarily leave.

Larry sued alleging race discrimination under Title VII, violations of the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), and retaliation. US District Court Judge Terry F. Moorer denied Larry’s claims, concluding the city had a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for its decisions:

  • Plaintiff does not dispute that he could not perform certain duties due to his physical limitations.
  • The fact that new leadership implemented a plan that required all personnel to be able to perform all firefighting duties (e.g. riding on a fire truck) is not in and of itself discriminatory.
  • The fact that the MFRD historically had more “Administrative” positions is irrelevant. With changes in leadership come changes in policies.
  • Chief Sealey made it clear with his application through the strategic plan that he intended to make significant changes to the department to include a requirement that all personnel be essentially a “plug and play” for any role that may need to be filled.
  • The record clearly establishes that Plaintiff simply could not meet those new physical requirements.
  • Therefore, he cannot establish … that he was qualified for the positions.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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