Two Mobile Captains File Suit Claiming Race Discrimination

Two African-American captains with the Mobile Fire Department who were disciplined after coming to the defense of an African-American female firefighter who was being investigated for a tattoo, have filed suit claiming race discrimination and retaliation. The suit was filed by Captain Jason Craig and Captain Rodrick Shoots, Sr. in US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

The case stems from one we covered previously involving Probationary Firefighter Kay’ana Adams, who was terminated last November for “conduct unbecoming.” Following her termination, Captain Shoots was terminated and Captain Craig suspended without pay for 30-days. Appeals are pending in both cases.

The discipline appears to center around a September 29, 2022 incident at Station 16. That incident followed a September 8, 2022 disciplinary hearing over Adams’ tattoo whereby her probationary period was extended for six months and she agreed to grow her hair out to cover the tattoo.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • On September 29, 2022, Chief Philip Ballard appeared at Station 16 and told Ms. Adams that he needed to get a picture of her tattoo. Captain Craig and Captain Shoots were present at Station 16 at this time.
  • Ms. Adams then asked Chief Ballard why he needed a picture of her tattoo, but Chief Ballard refused to answer her.
  • Ms. Adams informed Chief Ballard that she was not comfortable with him taking a picture of her tattoo, especially if he could not explain to her why he needed the picture.
  • Chief Ballard then grabbed Ms. Adams by the arm and attempted to turn her around so that he could take a picture of the back of her head with his cell phone.
  • Chief Ballard did not get a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo at that time as Captain Shoots soon intervened.
  • Because Ms. Adams was confused, Captain Shoots reminded her to be careful when exchanging words with Chief Ballard, stating something to the effect of “he is not your friend.”
  • Captain Shoots then proceeded into his office to call his superiors to find out why Chief Ballard needed a photo of Ms. Adam’s tattoo, as he and Ms. Adams believed that the matter had already been resolved at the September 8, 2022 disciplinary hearing.
  • Captain Shoots called both Chief Jeremy Lami and Chief Frank, but neither of them answered the phone.
  • Captain Shoots then called the head of MFRD’s internal affairs, Director Laskey. Director Laskey did not answer the phone, but later called Captain Shoots back and stated that he was unaware as to why Chief Ballard was requesting a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo.
  • It was later discovered that Director Laskey was, in fact, aware of the MFRD’s intention to take a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo.
  • After leaving Station 16, Chief Ballard called Captain Shoots and advised him that on order from Chief Kenneth Keller, Ms. Adams was to proceed to Station 12, where she would be required to have a photograph taken of her tattoo that day.
  • Ms. Adams asked Captain Shoots, her union representative, to accompany her to Station 12.
  • On request from Ms. Adams, Captain Shoots then asked Chief Ballard if he (Shoots) could accompany Ms. Adams to Station 12. Chief Ballard initially said yes, but later instructed Captain Shoots that he was to remain at Station 16.
  • Upon information and belief, Chief Keller was reportedly told by Chief Frank and Chief Lami that Captain Shoots could not be present when the picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo was taken.
  • Ms. Adams subsequently reported to Station 12 to have her tattoo photographed by Chief Keller.
  • Ms. Adams, however, was complying with the directive that she let her hair grow out in order to cover the tattoo, yet not enough time had passed between the September 8, 2022 disciplinary hearing and September 29, 2022, for her hair to completely cover the tattoo.
  • Although Ms. Adams’ hair had not grown out enough to completely cover up the tattoo, she went out of her way (and beyond the order that she was given at the September 8, 2022 disciplinary hearing) to conceal her tattoo by placing bandages over top of it.
  • Upon information and belief, [firefighter Tony Rutland, who is white and who was known to have issues with Ms. Adams, wanted Ms. Adams fired and used her tattoo as a pretext for doing so.
  • Upon information and belief, Rutland went outside of the chain of command and complained about Ms. Adams and her tattoo to Chief Frank who then reported it to Chief Lami.
  • Notably, the MFRD considers going outside of the chain of command as insubordination.
  • Upon information and belief, Rutland has never been disciplined or charged with insubordination for going outside of the chain of command and complaining to Chief Frank about Ms. Adams.
  • Further, rather than instruct Ms. Adams’ direct supervisor, Captain Craig, to review Ms. Adams tattoo and file an incident report, Chief Lami ordered the District Chief in charge of training to instruct the Captain in the training center, who was not in charge of or had any supervision over Ms. Adams, to send him an incident report regarding Ms. Adams’ tattoo.
  • Notably, no one ever informed Ms. Adams, Captain Shoots, or Captain Craig that the MFRD was investigating Ms. Adams’ tattoo for a second time.
  • During the first week of October 2022, Captain Craig was approached by Captain Scott Carmichael who, on direct order from Chief Frank, pressured Captain Craig to change Ms. Adams’ Grade Sheet to reflect a recommendation of termination.
  • Captain Craig had previously submitted Ms. Adams’ Grade Sheet on or about September 23, 2022.
  • Captain Craig graded Ms. Adams “[e]xcellent” in every single category on the Grade Sheet, commenting, among other things, that she “produced beyond normal expectations,” “is very knowledgeable over a wide range of job responsibilities,” and “[i]s committed to the department’s goals.” Captain Craig also recommended that Ms. Adams receive permanent status.
  • Since becoming Captain in 2007, Captain Craig has performed numerous Grade Sheets for probationary firefighters and takes them very seriously.
  • Captain Craig refused to change Ms. Adams Grade Sheet as he believed that the Grade Sheet that he had previously submitted accurately reflected his assessment of Ms. Adams’ performance.
  • On or about November 10, 2022, another photograph was taken of the back of Ms. Adams head, at which point her tattoo was no longer visible as it was covered up by her hair.
  • Notwithstanding, on November 10, 2022, Captain Reggie Norton (Acting District Chief) terminated Ms. Adams’ employment with the MFRD for “conduct unbecoming.”
  • Moreover, upon information and belief, a few white firefighters who violated more serious MFRD polices and who were charged with criminal offenses were not terminated from the MFRD.
  • Shortly after Ms. Adams’ termination, on or about November 29, 2022, Captain Shoots was terminated from the MFRD for allegedly interfering with the investigation into Ms. Adam’s tattoo, as well as for purported insubordination and disobeying a direct order in connection with the September 29, 2022 incident wherein Chief Ballard attempted to get a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo.
  • Chief Ballard testified at Captain’s Shoots appeal hearing that Captain Shoots was never given a direct order nor could Chief Ballard identify Captain Shoots’ purported act of insubordination.
  • Also, on or about November 29, 2002, Captain Craig was charged with insubordination and placed on a 30-day unpaid suspension from December 7, 2022 to January 5, 2023.
  • The MFRD’s purported reason for charging Captain Craig with insubordination was for failing to support Chief Ballard by not ordering Ms. Adams to comply with Chief Ballard’s request to take a picture of her tattoo on September 29, 2022, and by failing to support Captain Keller in taking the photograph of Ms. Adams’ tattoo at Station 12.
  • Notably, Chief Ballard never instructed Captain Craig to order Ms. Adams to have her tattoo photographed.
  • Moreover, Captain Craig accompanied Ms. Adams to Station 12 where she complied with Captain Keller’s request and the picture of Ms. Adams tattoo was taken without incident.
  • Following his suspension, Captain Craig was transferred to Station 21.
  • Further, as a result of his suspension, Captain Craig’s performance evaluation (i.e., Grade Sheet), which was submitted by his immediate supervisor in April 2023, reflected that his performance during the prior period was “unsatisfactory.”
  • Up until this time, Captain Craig never once received an unsatisfactory Grade Sheet throughout his nearly 26 years of employment with the MFRD.
  • In fact, but for his suspension, Captain Craig’s April 2023 Grade Sheet reflects that his performance is “exceptional.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

UPDATED: Captain Shoots is now Fire Chief Shoots. He was appointed Fire Chief for the Prichard Fire Department. More on the story.

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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