STAMFORD — A Stamford fire marshal has sued the city, charging that he was improperly fired after his supervisor became enraged over a question about an assignment and tried to foment a fistfight.
The fire marshal, Stamford native Jerome Whitaker, who had 31 years with the department, alleges that the termination was racially motivated. Whitaker is Black and the supervisor, Assistant Fire Marshal David Francis, who according to the lawsuit attempted to “engage (Whitaker) in physical violence,” is White.
The lawsuit asserts that, while Whitaker was fired, Francis was not disciplined in any way “for his role in attempting to incite violence in the workplace.”
The suit also cites an incident in which the city did not terminate a White firefighter who was involved in a similar interaction.
The lawsuit states that, after the White firefighter “attempted to engage in a physical confrontation with another firefighter,” the city suspended him and sent him for anger-management classes.
Whitaker’s suit alleges employment discrimination based on race.
He was terminated in May 2020. In February 2021 he filed charges with the state Commission on Human Rights & Opportunities. In November 2022 CHRO released jurisdiction of the case, and it was filed in state Superior Court in Stamford last week.
It’s the fourth time in roughly as many years that a member of the Stamford fire service has been fired. The terminations have been either rescinded or contested in some way.
In January, Chief Trevor Roach fired 23-year firefighter Michael Mardis while Mardis was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism in a Maryland facility dedicated to helping first responders.
Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association President Paul Anderson has said that the union at the time was working with the city’s Human Resources Department to allow Mardis to complete treatment and retire. Mardis is an Army veteran diagnosed by the Veterans Administration with a post-traumatic stress disorder disability.
After Roach fired Mardis, the union filed a grievance and asked the Firefighters Pension Board to allow Mardis to retire with a pension that would continue medical benefits for his wife and daughters. The pension board voted to do that, but the matter is still pending.
In 2021 Roach fired Brendan Keatley, a deputy fire marshal and former union president, saying Keatley created false reports about how much time he spent inspecting buildings. Keatley has said his termination was one of a series of disciplinary actions Roach initiated after Keatley challenged the practice of allowing the top brass in the fire department, including Roach, to collect pensions and payroll checks at the same time.
The union grieved Keatley’s termination. The city ultimately withdrew it and allowed Keatley to retire.
In a case of nearly four years ago, a firefighter with a long-term health issue was terminated and then reinstated, Anderson said.
The cases add to a series of incidents illustrating dissension in the fire department.
In August 2022 the union, which is Local 786 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, brought a censure request before the IAFF’s annual convention in Canada.
IAFF members voted unanimously to rebuke Roach, along with Stamford Assistant Chief Miguel Robles, for what they deem union offenses, including improper handling of promotions; collecting pensions and salaries simultaneously; collecting pensions at higher rates than they’re due; firing Keatley for questioning the pensions; improper response to a partial collapse at the Allure apartment high-rise; and more.
Anderson said during the convention that the censure was meant to urge Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons “to take action, to bring light to the fact that her fire department is in turmoil, that we’ve got a toxic relationship with the chiefs.” Roach said at the time that the allegations are untrue.
Two months earlier, in June 2022, four firefighters settled a longstanding lawsuit over how the city chooses firefighters for promotion. The four charged that city officials bypass carefully calculated exam scores and decide promotions using their own subjective criteria.
The city paid the firefighters $250,000 but admitted no wrongdoing. A judge in the case said the firefighters were not fairly considered for promotion.
Now there’s another lawsuit.
Whitaker alleges that in April 2020, his supervisor, Francis, issued a memo instructing fire marshals to inspect private businesses for health violations related to the COVID-19 pandemic and to fine those found to be out of compliance.
During a meeting to discuss the memo, Francis asked whether anyone had questions, according to the suit. Whitaker, who’d been a deputy fire marshal since 2004, asked whether it’s within the jurisdiction of fire marshals to conduct health inspections.
According to the lawsuit, Francis became “very irate,” told Whitaker to “shut up” and called him insubordinate. Francis then
“attempted to escalate the conversation” by prodding Whitaker to hit him, the suit states.
Whitaker refused to do that and was immediately sent home on administrative leave, according to the lawsuit. After an investigation, Roach told Whitaker he was terminated, the suit states.
Whitaker’s attorney, Daniel Angelone, said that, during a fact-finding hearing before the CHRO, “we had white fire marshals who testified they got in more trouble with the administration (than Whitaker) and they were not fired; they were surprised that he was fired for this.”
It’s a “classic racial discrimination scenario,” Angelone said.
“You have two employees involved in the same scenario, and the African-American employee gets fired,” he said. “Nothing, not even a slap on the wrist, happens to Francis. He’s allowed to continue working and then retire with no blemish on his record.”
Stamford Director of Legal Affairs Thomas Cassone said the case “follows a finding by the CHRO of no reasonable cause.”
But Angelone said there were no formal findings.
“No decision was entered by CHRO because we requested a release of jurisdiction,” he said. “Once that happens, the CHRO proceeding stops.”
In previous cases firefighters have questioned whether the chief or the Fire Commission has the power to terminate. Cassone said the city Charter and the collective bargaining agreement give the chief the authority to discipline union members, up to and including termination.
Whitaker is requesting a jury trial. He is seeking compensatory damages, legal costs, a declaration from the city that the employment practices in the complaint are unlawful, and for the court to retain jurisdiction to ensure compliance.