Houston Firefighter-Dispatcher Challenges No-Beard Rule on Religious Grounds

A Houston firefighter assigned to the dispatch center as a Senior Communications Captain has filed suit claiming the city has failed to accommodate his sincerely held religious beliefs by requiring him to remain clean-shaven. Brandon E. O’Neal filed suit today in US District Court for the Southern District of Texas naming the city, the Houston Fire Department and Fire Chief Samuel Pena as defendants.

O’Neal filed the suit pro se alleging a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and defamation/libel under Texas law. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Plaintiff is a 38 year old African-American man who is a devoted non-denominational Christian.
  • Plaintiff has been employed by the Houston Fire Department since 2007 and has been assigned to the Dispatch Division, Office of Emergency Communications at the Houston Emergency Center since 2014.
  • Plaintiff is still currently employed at this location as a dispatch supervisor, Senior Communication Captain.
  • On August 4, 2022, the Plaintiff requested to be accommodated from the clean-shaven policy due to religious observances that require having a beard.
  • Plaintiff wrote to the Defendant and requested changes to policies in the uniform guideline that were discriminatory for himself and other members on August 25th, 2022.
  • In retaliation, on October 18, 2022, Plaintiff was ordered to clean-shave despite accommodation requests and warned of forthcoming disciplinary action including indefinite suspension, if he did not comply.
  • Plaintiff was discriminated against on the basis of religion by the Defendants with an unjust denial of a reasonable accommodation from the clean-shaven policy on December 3, 2022.
  • Since the Plaintiff has been assigned to the dispatch division, he has witnessed other employees allowed medical accommodations, including those for facial hair.
  • On January 18, 2023, a Charge of Discrimination was filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging religious discrimination and retaliation.
  • On September 29, 2023 a Notice of Right to Sue letter was issued by the EEOC.
  • On January 22, 2023, in retaliation, the Plaintiff was harassed by being ordered by the Defendants to clean-shave despite his religious observances.
  • The Plaintiff refused to clean shave and was again warned of forth-coming discipline if he did not comply.
  • In retaliation of refusal to abandon his religious observance, the Plaintiff was formally reprimanded on February 8, 2023.
  • This led to a suspension on September 11, 2023 through September 13, 2023.
  • The Plaintiff had no other discipline in his 16 year work history with the employer.
  • In retaliation for refusing to abandon his religious observance, the Plaintiff was relieved of duty on April 9, 2023, as the Plaintiff arrived at work for a pre-scheduled overtime assignment.
  • The Plaintiff was replaced with another member to fill the vacancy.
  • On April 10, 2023, in retaliation, the Plaintiff was harassed again by being called in to work overtime only to be relieved of duty upon arrival to work.
  • Because the Plaintiff refused to abandon his religious observance he was replaced with another member to fill the vacancy.
  • In like manner, the Plaintiff arrived for pre-scheduled or call-in overtime for June 18, 2023, June 20,2023, July 24, 2023 and December 20, 2023 to be relieved of duty upon arrival and replaced because of his religious observance.
  • To further harassment, on September 19, 2023, after the suspension, the Plaintiff was ordered to meet with the Fire Department Chaplain by the Defendants upon returning to work, which produced a false report addressed to the Fire Chief, defaming the Plaintiff and declaring his faith’s beliefs to be insincere.
  • On October 11, 2023, in an appeal against the suspension, the Police and Firefighters Civil Service Commission overruled the suspension, on the account of there being no undue hardship.
  • In retaliation to the appeal, the Defendants refuse to accommodate the Plaintiff and continue to not allow him to work overtime assignments.

O’Neal is seeking $30,710.50 in actual damages for failure to accommodate, $250,000 in compensatory damages, expungement of his disciplinary record, and an award for costs and attorneys fees.

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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