KCK Firefighter Alleges Race Discrimination and Retaliation

A 20-year veteran Kansas City, Kansas firefighter has filed suit claiming he was the victim of race discrimination and retaliation. Leejamahl A. Washington alleges he was subjected to racial hostilities throughout much of his career, but conditions worsened after he testified in support of Jyan Harris. Harris won a $2.3 million case in 2021.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • Plaintiff is Black.
  • During Plaintiff’s employment with Defendant, Defendant engaged in a pattern and practice of discriminating and retaliating against Black employees.
  • As part of this pattern, Defendant would frequently move Black employees from station to station, instead of allowing them to remain at a set station and prevented Black employees from being promoted.
  • As part of this pattern, Defendant would segregate many of its Black firefighters by station.
  • As part of this pattern, Defendant would disciple and even terminate Black employees for engaging in conduct for which White employees were not disciplined.
  • Within Plaintiff’s first year on the job (in or about 2001 or 2002), Plaintiff walked into the break room in Station 7 and observed other employees wearing Nazi memorabilia with swastikas on them.
  • Plaintiff reported this to his captain at the time, but nothing was ever done about it and no one was ever disciplined.
  • Years later, Plaintiff witnessed a noose in fire station number 18, in front of Plaintiff’s locker.
  • Plaintiff reported the noose to Defendant’s Human Resources Department but nothing was ever done about it.
  • Previously Plaintiff also had trash placed in his locker at this station and the Captain at this station asked Plaintiff to clean up someone else’s tobacco spit, while no White employees in the area were asked to do this.
  • Around 2016, when Plaintiff was working at Station 17, the fire fighters were outside getting some exercise during their shift.
  • At this time, Plaintiff mentioned that chiggers, tiny biting mites, were bothering him. Firefighter Brett McCoy responded, “I thought you all got along.” When Plaintiff asked him what he meant, Brett McCoy’s made a racial joke insinuating a racial epithet, stating “I thought all chiggers got along.”
  • Throughout Plaintiff’s years in the fire department, Plaintiff was repeatedly threatened with discipline and termination for engaging in conduct for which other employees— who were White—were not disciplined or threatened with discipline or termination.
  • During Plaintiff’s employment with the Defendant, Chief John Paul Jones disciplined and threatened to terminate Plaintiff over a Facebook post that did not violate Defendant’s Social Media policy.
  • Because of the stress and anxiety of being discriminated against and retaliated against during his employment, Plaintiff had to be prescribed medicine for stress and anxiety for several years.
  • In April of 2021, Plaintiff testified in the trial of Jyan Harris.
  • The jury found that Defendant discriminated against Harris and awarded Harris damages.
  • After Plaintiff’s testimony, Defendant began treating Plaintiff increasingly worse.
  • Plaintiff was moved from station to station frequently instead of being allowed to stay at Plaintiff’s permanent station, number 16.
  • In approximately eight out of every ten shifts, Plaintiff was sent to stations considered to be the stations for Black firefighters, which were Station 10 and Station 7.
  • Being moved around daily is difficult for a firefighter and is in violation of Defendant’s policies.
  • Firefighters live at the station to which they are assigned for the entirety of the 24-hour period that makes up their shift.
  • Moving a firefighter frequently prevents that firefighter from having consistency on the job.
  • Moving a firefighter frequently causes them to have to pack up and move their gear and bedding frequently.
  • Moving a firefighter frequently makes it unclear what bed they will be sleeping in every day.
  • Moving a firefighter frequently prevents them from having the ability to make meaningful connections with the firefighters at their station.
  • These connections not only help a firefighter work a difficult job but are essential when firefighters are put in dangerous situations as part of their job.
  • Preventing a firefighter from making meaningful connections with his fellow firefighters literally endangers his life.
  • Defendant did not frequently move other White employees around in this manner.
  • Plaintiff has some light sensitivity to his eyes. All of Plaintiff’s fellow firefighters knew he had this sensitivity to light.
  • Plaintiff had a conversation about Plaintiff’s sensitivity to light with Captain William Blackwell, who is White.
  • On or about September 2, 2021, Blackwell asked Plaintiff to turn on a light.
  • Because of Plaintiff’s light sensitivity, he did not do this.
  • Plaintiff had the light off and Blackwell came in and turned it on.
  • When Blackwell left the room, Plaintiff turned it off and Blackwell came back in and turned it on.
  • Later, Blackwell stated that he gave Plaintiff a direct order to turn it on.
  • Blackwell wrote Plaintiff up for refusing a direct order and for abusive language/conduct.
  • Plaintiff had never seen any White employee written up for something so minor.
  • Upon information and belief, White employees were not written up for such conduct.
  • Upon information and belief, Blackwell wrote up Plaintiff because of Plaintiff’s race, and/or because Plaintiff opposed discrimination.
  • While Blackwell was writing Plaintiff up, another employee (who is White) heard Blackwell speaking to Acting Battalion Chief Christopher Ruth (who is also White).
  • Blackwell commented to Ruth that when Blackwell wrote up the incident involving Plaintiff, it did not sound that bad.
  • Ruth responded, telling Blackwell to put more in it then, indicating that Blackwell should try to make the allegations against Plaintiff sound as bad as possible, even if it was not truthful.
  • Blackwell responded, “he is going to feel the full wrath of Bill Blackwell.”
  • Upon information and belief, Blackwell did this and said these things because of
  • Plaintiff’s race and because of Plaintiff’s prior complaints of discrimination and Plaintiff’s opposition to discrimination.
  • On November 15, 2021, Plaintiff was suspended without pay.
  • Plaintiff again made complaints to HR about this discrimination, but Plaintiff never heard back from them.
  • As a result of his treatment by Defendant, Plaintiff again had to go on medicine for anxiety and depression.
  • Since this time, Plaintiff has continued to be discriminated against and moved around stations.

The complaint alleges three violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: Count I – disparate treatment and harassment based upon race; Count II – hostile work environment based upon race; and Count III – retaliation. 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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