Oregon Firefighter Alleges Race Discrimination and Retaliation

A Portland firefighter has filed suit seeking $1.2 million in damages for the race discrimination and retaliation he endured. Jason Wilson filed suit Multnomah County Circuit Court claiming he was denied promotions, given unequal training opportunities, and harassed on account of his race; and retaliated against after he complained.

Wilson, 17 year veteran, claimed he was passed over for two positions, Inspector Specialist and an Inspector Testing Maintenance position, due to racism. He also claims that the city improperly refused to consider veterans preference points that he was entitled to due to his military service. Quoting from the complaint:

  • On information and belief, since at least 2017, every other job announcement for open specialist positions in the FMO has required that the applicant has completed the probationary period to be eligible.
  • In this case, however, if that requirement had been imposed and one of the two white employees had been disqualified, the FMO would have been faced with hiring one of the two Black employees.
  • So, for this job description and this job description only, the HRAR 7.01 requirement that the applicant has completed the probationary period was removed.
  • That paved the way for employees of Portland Fire & Rescue to avoid hiring one of the two Black applicants.
  • On information and belief, employees of Portland Fire & Rescue in charge of interviewing employees for some promotions give white employees answers to interview questions in advance of interviews so that they score highly.
  • Plaintiff has never received answers in advance.
  • Nor have several other Black employees of the FMO.
  • Plaintiff and the white employees selected for the Inspector assignment were part of the classified service.
  • The Merit Principle requires that they be selected solely on the basis of merit and fitness demonstrated by a valid and reliable examination or other objective evidence of competence.”
  • Yet plaintiff was rejected without any valid and reliable examination or other objective evidence of competence” and “at the sole discretion of a bureau director.”
  • The system is corrupt and in direct violation of the City Charter.
  • In 2019, plaintiff interviewed for the official designation of Fire Inspector – the position he had already been performing. Plaintiff was ranked second on the list of applicants with Veterans Administration points (for his service as a Marine) and his experience carrying out District Fire Inspector duties without being given that designation. Plaintiff was hired for the position.
  • The Training Academy [for Fire Inspector] began on April 4, 2019.
  • Plaintiff, the only person of color/minority in the classroom, arrived that day to find books and binders with his name on them at a desk in the corner of the room facing the back wall.
  • All his white peers were faced toward the front of the room while he, the only person of color, faced to the back, isolating him.
  • Soon after, plaintiff was interviewed and videotaped in the classroom with the obvious aim of putting him on display as an up-and-coming Black Fire Inspector.
  • A few weeks into the class, Galvan told plaintiff that he could no longer attend the FMO training.
  • Instead, Galvan tasked plaintiff with undertaking 25 inspections a week, which was an excessive and unheard-of requirement at the time. At that point, training coordinator Paul Jennings escorted plaintiff to Fire Marshal Kari Schimel’s office to appeal plaintiff’s exclusion from training.
  • Fire Marshal Schimel told plaintiff, without explanation, that training was not plaintiff’s priority, and he should focus instead on inspections, unlike his white peers.
  • Many of plaintiff’s white peers in the Fire Inspector Training Academy, who were allowed to take the formal training that plaintiff has been denied, have obtained promotions to Specialist and Senior positions.
  • By contrast, plaintiff and other Black employees of Portland Fire & Rescue have systematically been denied training opportunities equal to those afforded to similarly situated, white colleagues.
  • Plaintiff was required to self-study in his free time to obtain those certifications. He is the only fire inspector in his Fire Inspector Training Academy peer group who has not earned his Fire Plans Examiner Certification, which has been a requirement for promotion.

Wilson claims beyond retaliation for complaining about racially unequal treatment, he was retaliated against for complaining about the falsification of inspection reports associated with the Company Fire Inspection Program. The complaint includes two counts of whistleblower retaliation.

The complaint seeks $400,000 in lost wages and benefits; and $800,000 for emotional distress. All four counts in the complaint allege state law violations, so the suit will likely not be removed to federal court.

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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