ATLANTA (CN) — Attorneys representing five black Georgia firefighters who claim they suffered racial discrimination and a hostile work environment asked the 11th Circuit on Thursday to reverse a district court ruling dismissing their case.
The firefighters, who were all employed by the Thomasville, Georgia Fire Department, allege that they were denied opportunities for training, promotions, merit increases and raises that white firefighters who had less training, experience and seniority received.
The firefighters also claim that the department was generally hostile toward the black firefighters on staff.
Two firefighters allege that they overheard white firefighters on two separate occasions use “the ‘N’ word” while speaking to the fire captain.
According to attorneys for the five firemen, the alleged discrimination became significantly worse after they filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Firefighter Curtis Bradshaw, for instance, claims that in August 2013, he found a rope tied in a noose hanging from the bed in his fire station bedroom.
The firefighters claim that after filing their initial charges of discrimination with the EEOC, the department retaliated by reassigning them to new positions which allegedly amounted to demotions and reduced their pay.
In a September 2016 decision, Senior U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson ruled that the firefighters failed to present “direct evidence” of discrimination.
Lawson described the incident involving the noose as “an isolated incident” and ruled that the allegedly derogatory remarks made by fire department staff members do not amount to more than “racial insensitivity.”
“Discourteousness and rudeness do not equate to racial harassment, nor does a lack of racial sensitivity alone amount to actionable harassment,” the ruling states.
On Thursday, attorneys representing the city of Thomasville and the Thomasville Fire Department asked a three-judge panel to affirm the district court’s decision.
The oral arguments largely focused on the department’s alleged retaliation against two of the firefighters, Derek Colson and Curtis Bradshaw, who were removed from their roles as Fire Inspectors in 2011 and reassigned after a performance evaluation revealed that they failed to complete inspections of local businesses and did not keep accurate records.
“In June and July of 2011, Colson and Bradshaw underwent evaluations. Both were informed that their work was insufficient. They were provided with benchmarks to improve in order to receive their full merit increases,” attorney Tom Richardson argued on behalf of the city and the fire department.
“The [fire] chief gave a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for their transfer,” Richardson said.
But attorneys representing the firefighters argued that race was indeed a determining factor in the decision to transfer Colson and Bradshaw.
“After they were called in, in June 2011, Colson and Bradshaw were replaced by a single white man with early onset dementia who could not drive,” attorney LaTonya Wiley said.
“The fact that they were replaced by one white man–how does that indicate racial discrimination?” Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Edward Carnes asked.
“It negates the argument that their performance was deficient. How can you have someone who is mentally impaired doing that?” Wiley said.
Richardson claimed that there was no evidence when the man replaced Colson and Bradshaw that he was incapable of driving.
Wiley and attorney Brenda Youmas also pointed to the timing of the 2011 evaluation and the subsequent transfers, which they argued may have been prompted by the firefighters’ decision to file EEOC complaints.
“They never had a problem until after they filed their complaints. None of these issues became issues until after the chief met with them, until after the EEOC charges were filed,” Youmas argued.
Wiley and Youmas appeared optimistic about the outcome of Thursday’s proceedings.
“We were pleased that the court had a great command of the facts. They went straight to the heart of the issue,” Wiley told Courthouse News.
The panel did not indicate when they will render a decision in the case.