Albany Prevails at Second Circuit in Discrimination Suit

An Albany fire captain who claims he wrongfully was denied a promotion to battalion chief following an off-duty incident, has lost his appeal to the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Captain Jeremy Clawson claims the City of Albany rescinded a civil service promotion he earned in 2019 on account of a disability and his race.

At the center of the case is a February 1, 2019 incident that Captain Clawson attributed to a diabetic condition exacerbated by hypothermia. The fire department attributed his behavior to alcohol intoxication, considered it to be conduct unbecoming, and thereafter denied him the promotion.

Captain Clawson sued alleging his diabetes and race were the real reason he was denied the promotion. The district court found for the city, prompting Captain Clawson to appeal. Quoting from the Second Circuit decision:

  • In 2019, Clawson was offered a provisional promotion to battalion chief, the third highest-ranking position at the AFD, that was to take effect after a swearing-in ceremony.
  • Shortly before the ceremony, Clawson was drinking, while off duty, and became so intoxicated that first responders found him “incoherent with his pants down around his ankles…”  
  • The AFD subsequently rescinded Clawson’s promotion offer.
  • On appeal, Clawson challenges the district court’s summary judgment determination, arguing that he sufficiently established his claims for race discrimination.
  • For the reasons set forth below, we disagree and affirm the district court’s judgment.
  • Title VII makes it unlawful for an employer “to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
  • At the summary judgment stage, race discrimination claims under Title VII and the NYSHRL are subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.
  • If the plaintiff makes that “de minimis” showing, “the defendant may rebut that showing by articulating a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employment action.”
  • “[F]ollowing the defendant’s proffer of a justification, a plaintiff need only show that the defendant was in fact motivated at least in part by the prohibited discriminatory animus.”
  • First, the plaintiff must “establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that: he is a member of a protected class; he is qualified for h[is] position; he suffered an adverse employment action; and the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination.”
  • Based on our independent review of the record, we conclude that Clawson established a prima facie case of race discrimination.
  • First, Clawson, as an African-American employee, is a member of a protected class.
  • Second, Clawson met his “minimal” burden of presenting evidence that he “possesses the basic skills necessary for performance of the” battalion chief position.
  • Third, the recission of Clawson’s promotion offer constitutes an adverse employment action.
  • The AFD, however, has articulated a legitimate, non-discriminatory rationale for rescinding Clawson’s promotion offer.
  • Before he was slated to become battalion chief, Clawson consumed at least seven pints of beer, and proceeded to “expos[e] himself” outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts, prompting first responders to call an ambulance for “a very old male who [was] highly intoxicated…,” and who was “incoherent with his pants down around his ankles.”
  • Following that incident, the AFD determined that Clawson’s promotion to battalion chief would undermine the AFD’s internal morale and its public perception, as well as Clawson’s effectiveness as a leader.
  • In these circumstances, the AFD has stated a sufficient, non-discriminatory rationale for the adverse employment action.
  • Clawson, on the other hand, has failed to produce sufficient evidence showing either that the AFD’s proffered reason was false, or more generally, that discrimination was the real reason for the rescission.
  • In an attempt to convince us otherwise, Clawson argues that the district court misconstrued or ignored four pieces of evidence that purportedly establish that the AFD’s real reason for the rescission was discrimination.
  • Based on our review of the record, we hold that none of Clawson’s evidence raises a material issue of fact such that a reasonable jury could conclude that race “was at least one of the . . . factors” motivating the rescission.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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