Mobile Firefighter Terminated Over Tattoo Files Discrimination Suit

The Mobile firefighter who was fired last year over a tattoo on her head and neck, has filed suit against the city alleging race, gender, sexual orientation and religion discrimination; hostile work environment; retaliation; and violation of the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Kay’Ana Adams filed suit today in US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

Adams’ suit follows on the heels a suit filed by two Mobile fire captains three weeks ago.  Captain Jason Craig and Captain Rodrick Shoots claim they were disciplined because they came to the defense of Adams. Both were officers in the Mobile Chapter of the International Association of Progressive Black Firefighters. Here is our original coverage of her dismissal.

Quoting from Adams’ complaint:

  • Plaintiff Kay’ana Adams is an African-American homosexual female. She is also Muslim.
  • Ms. Adams was employed as a probationary firefighter with City of Mobile Fire Rescue Department from on or about September 11, 2021, until she was unlawfully terminated on or about November 10, 2022.
  • From the moment Ms. Adams was hired at MFRD, she faced sexist and racist remarks and discrimination from coworkers as a result of her being a black, female, lesbian firefighter.
  • For example, during training in September 2021, Ms. Adams voiced her concerns when fellow firefighters were discussing how to tie a noose during rope week.
  • Also during training, another trainee (“Martinez”), flat out told Ms. Adams that he did not want to work with woman.
  • Martinez also argued with Ms. Adams about her religious beliefs (she is Muslim) and her sexual orientation, and for a three-month period referred to Ms. Adams as “macho man.”
  • Ms. Adams reported Martinez’s discriminatory remarks and comments to the training Captains, but she was ultimately ostracized by her fellow trainees as a result of doing so.
  • Throughout her employment with the MFRD, Ms. Adams made several complaints to her supervisors about the discriminatory comments she received and the harassment that she was subjected to, yet ultimately, Ms. Adams continued to be harassed and/or discriminated against.
  • In June of 2022, Ms. Adams got a tattoo that covered the back of her head and part of her neck.
  • To Ms. Adams understanding, her tattoo was not in violation of the MFRD’s then-existing tattoo policy.
  • In July 2022, an anonymous complaint was filed against Ms. Adams in connection with her tattoo.
  • As a result of the complaint, on September 8, 2022, Ms. Adams was required to attend a disciplinary hearing.
  • Upon conclusion of the disciplinary hearing, it was ordered that Ms. Adams’ probationary period would be extended for six months, that Ms. Adams would be required to grow her hair out in order to adequately cover the tattoo, and that a new tattoo policy would be put in place.
  • In September 2022, Ms. Adams sent an email to Chief Busby requesting a religious accommodation, asking that she (a Muslim) be allowed to wear a hijab while at work.
  • In response to her religious accommodation request, Ms. Adams was not only asked why she is Muslim, but was also required to prove that she is, in fact, Muslim.
  • Ms. Adams filled out and returned the requested paperwork that she was told was necessary to process her religious accommodation request, but ultimately Ms. Adams was never given a decision one way or another as to whether her request would be honored. Rather, Ms. Adams’ request was simply ignored.
  • 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.”
  • After leaving Station 16, Chief Ballard called Captain Shoots and advised him that on order from Chief Kenneth Keller (“Chief 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.
  • 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.
  • Captain Craig, as Ms. Adams’ direct supervisor, accompanied Ms. Adams to Station 12.
  • While at Station 12, Captain Craig requested that another Captain, Captain Gary Holbein, be present to observe Captain Keller take a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo as an uninterested party.
  • Both Captain Craig and Captain Holbein were present when Chief Keller took a picture of Ms. Adams’ tattoo in his office.
  • Ms. Adams eventually learned that a second anonymous complaint had been filed against her at some point after her September 8, 2022 disciplinary hearing for allegedly failing to adequately cover her tattoo.
  • 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, 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 October 6, 2022, Ms. Adams filed a formal grievance with the MFRD alleging discrimination on the basis of her sex.
  • 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.”
  • Ms. Adams was not provided any explanation as to her alleged conduct that warranted her termination for “conduct unbecoming.”

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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