Missouri Chief Alleges His Termination Was Retaliation

A Missouri fire chief who was fired in January has filed suit against a fire district and the district’s chairman alleging race discrimination and retaliation. Chief Ankeneth Corbin filed suit against the Black Jack Fire Protection District and Chairman David Calhoun.

The suit was filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court on February 14, 2023, and removed to US District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri last week. Chief Corbin claims he complained about improper conduct and intimidation by Chairman Calhoun, but nothing was ever done about it. He also claims Chairman Calhoun discriminated against him on account of his race. According to the complaint both men are African-American, but the Chief was the victim of “Black on Black” discrimination.

As explained in the complaint:

  • Black on Black” racism is a well-recognized phenomena in sociological, political, and psychological literature, as well as in jurisprudence: indeed, as Judge Sippel ruled in Belton v. Shinseki, 2009 WL 2488025 (E.D.Mo. 2009), “the VA’s argument that Belton could not have experienced racial discrimination because her supervisor is also African–American is wrong as a matter of law, requiring me to deny the VA’s motion for judgment as a matter of law.”

In July, 2022, Chief Corbin filed a complaint of race discrimination with the EEOC. He claims thereafter Chairman Calhoun retaliated against him, encouraging the union take a vote of no-confidence in him, denying his request to extend the maximum retirement age so he could remain chief after age 60, and terminating him for pretexual reasons.

The complaint states Chief Corbin was terminated in part because he installed a hidden camera in his office. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Plaintiff came to believe that Chairman Calhoun was coming into Plaintiff’s office and going through his personal effects, rifling through his cabinets and drawers.
  • Plaintiff put a camera in his office, which confirmed his suspicion that Chairman Calhoun was indeed invading his privacy.
  • Plaintiff had every right and authority as Chief to have a camera in his office.
  • On December 6, 2022, Plaintiff attended a closed session board meeting as previously instructed by the Board of Directors of the Fire District.
  • During this meeting district a Fire District attorney attempted to intimidate Plaintiff by insinuating that Plaintiff had possibly violated a Missouri law, despite Missouri being a one-party consent state.
  • Plaintiff repeated several times during this meeting that he was extremely uncomfortable that the board would pursue personnel action against him while an active EEOC/MCHR investigation was still pending.
  • The Fire District attorney stated that they weren’t there to talk about the EEOC complaint or the investigation, or Plaintiff’s allegations of retaliation following his filing of the charge.
  • The Board of Directors was unconcerned about a supervisor going through Plaintiff’s personal workspace and drawers, or the recorded conversation between Plaintiff and Chairman Calhoun where Calhoun admitted that he directed Plaintiff on multiple occasions to arrange for him to receive a decommission fire department vehicle.
  • The Board was also unconcerned that Mr. Calhoun showed Plaintiff’s EEOC complaint to Battalion Chief Dave Schmidt and attempted to have labor members file the vote of “no confidence” against Plaintiff as Fire Chief.
  • On December 27, 2022, Plaintiff, as he was beginning a vacation, was visited at his house by Chairman Calhoun and the Assistant Chief Roger Ellison.
  • During that meeting, Plaintiff was suspended by the Fire District—ostensibly for installing a camera in his own office—and ordered to surrender his car, phone, computer devices, and credit cards.
  • Plaintiff was terminated on January 17 at a Board meeting; the pretextual reasons given in a January 18 letter were the alleged retention of a laptop during suspension, using a recording device in his office, and not yet having received Plaintiff’s physician letter regarding his mental health status (which the physician’s office was unable to produce until January 18).

The complaint alleges Chief Corbin’s termination violated Missouri Rev. Stat. § 105.055; the First and Fourteenth Amendments; and constituted age discrimination, race discrimination, and 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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