Court Finds No Discrimination Where VA Fire Department Followed Consistent Practice

The Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit brought by a Virginia firefighter who claimed the department discriminated against him on account of his race. Micheall Lyons claims the Alexandria Fire Department intentionally discriminated against him by delaying his assignment to a paramedic internship position.

Lyons claims that white firefighters were given assignments to work with a field training officer during the five months he had to wait for his, which constituted race discrimination. He contends department had (and ignored) a first-come first-served policy for the one-year assignments. The city disagreed contending it consistently applied the first-come first-served policy on a per-shift basis. Quoting from the decision:

  • Lyons began the paramedic certification process with the Fire Department’s support.
  • The Fire Department provided Lyons with the required educational courses, and it transferred him to a medic unit so that he could complete the required on-the-job training.
  • Once Lyons completed his coursework and training, he also passed the practical component of the National Registry examination.
  • But the written component of the examination proved harder.
  • After failing that test three times, the National Registry required him to complete remedial training before he could take the test again.
  • Undeterred and determined to pass the test, Lyons paid for the required remedial training out of pocket.
  • Even so, he still failed the examination on his fourth and fifth attempts. He finally passed the examination on his sixth attempt in August 2017.
  • Later that month, he received his State Paramedic Certification.
  • That made him eligible to start the Internship Program.
  • But eligibility did not translate to immediate placement.
  • It would be five months before Lyons received a spot.
  • During this delay, he went without the increased pay and rank that came with being a paramedic intern.
  • Lyons alleges that Fire Department higher-ups told him that the Department used a first come, first served practice to place interns.
  • And, according to Lyons, that practice was not followed in his case, leading to the placement of three white interns ahead of him.
  • If white applicants were allowed to skip over Lyons in line for the internship, that might support an inference of discrimination as white applicants would be treated better than Lyons.
  • The Fire Department disagrees with those allegations.
  • According to the Fire Department, Chief Lawrence Schultz, its Assistant Chief of Operations, had the discretion to place interns as he saw fit.
  • But Chief Schultz almost always followed a practice of placing interns in the first internship spot available on that applicant’s shift, and the Fire Department provided evidence that Chief Shultz followed that typical practice when placing Lyons.
  • The Fire Department has three shifts-A, B, and C.
  • Thus, an applicant on shift A will not be placed into an internship until a spot on shift A becomes available.
  • Interns are assigned to a supervising field training officer who oversees a single intern, so placements are dependent on, and necessarily limited by, the availability of field training officers on each shift.
  • Lyons responds by claiming this explanation is false. In other words, he claims the Fire Department does not have a shift-specific practice and instead typically assigns interns to the first available field training officer regardless of shift.
  • The district court found that Lyons failed to create a genuine question of material fact that the Fire Department does not have a shift-specific placement practice.
  • Thus, the court granted summary judgment to the Fire Department on his discrimination claim.
  • Title VII serves as an important bulwark against invidious discrimination. But when the plaintiff fails to produce evidence which creates a genuine dispute of material fact, this
  • Court must ensure that employers are not punished for implementing lawful and nondiscriminatory business practices.
  • On the record before us, the evidence only shows that Lyons misunderstood the Fire Department’s internship placement practice. That does not suffice. Accordingly, the district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.

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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