Jury orders payout to KC black firefighter for denying him promotion because of race

An African-American firefighter with the Kansas City Fire Department has been awarded $356,694 in compensatory damages following a race discrimination suit against the city.

Tarshish Jones, a firetruck driver, claimed the department uses discriminatory practices in determining who is promoted.

When the suit was filed in 2015, Jones had been employed by the department for 17 years and had been eligible for captain for 12 of those years. He took the captain’s test five times. He scored high on objective testing, but was “marked down in his verbal testing because he is African American,” according to the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, “similarly situated Caucasian officers of less experience and seniority and lower scores on the written tests, have received promotions to captain, and/or were promoted.”

Jones sued for discrimination in two of the years he applied for a captain’s position, 2012 and 2014. The captain’s test is given every two years. The jury agreed he was discriminated against in 2012 but not 2014. The jury declined to award punitive damages.

“The (city) employees are diverse except for the fire department,” said Jones’s attorney Lynne Bratcher. “I think there is systematic race discrimination in the fire department. ... In regards to the promotion, they are doing nothing to make sure that African Americans have a fair shake.”

Jones still has not been promoted.

The department’s test for promotions is made up of four parts: A written test, seniority and two oral sections. The last three times he took the tests, Jones was in the top 10 after the seniority and written sections. The oral sections of the captain’s test involve responding to questions in front of a video camera, and the video is then assessed by members of the fire department or outside departments.

Jones’ video test was assessed by department insiders in 2012 but by those outside the department in 2014.

“Even when Defendant uses outside departments, the K.C. Fire Department is able to tell outside groups about people they like and don’t like and get the test scores before they are sent out for the interviews,” according to the suit.

“This form of testing intentionally results in unfair treatment to candidates in promotions, based on race. ... The testing set-up is a way for Caucasian firefighters to be promoted by friends and family,” the suit alleged.

Jones answered the oral questions well, but his score did not reflect how well he answered the questions, according to the suit.

According to Bratcher, there are 1,356 employees with the fire department — 13.5 percent are African American, while the city’s population is about 30 percent African American.

Of 199 captains, 15 are African American, or 7.5 percent. Of 28 battalion chiefs, three are African American. Of the eight deputy chiefs, one is African American, who was promoted after the lawsuit was filed in 2015. Prior to that, there had not been an African American deputy chief in 17 years, Bratcher said.

Following the verdict on Wednesday, Fire Chief Paul Berardi sent an email to the department’s administration warning his leadership to not tolerate any retaliation against Jones.

Berardi said he was disappointed in the verdict but wanted his administration to know that he has great respect for Jones and expected that he will “continue his career as an outstanding contributor to the organization and our community.

“I know that you will continue to treat FAO (fire apparatus operator) Jones in professional and warm manner, as I assure you that I will,” Berardi wrote. “I also ask and expect that you take every measure to ensure that all personnel in your charge specifically avoid any form of retaliation or disparate treatment for bringing forth a cause and proceeding he believed to be right for all. Any evidence of actions that could be construed as retaliation of any sort should be promptly addressed and reported through the chain of command.”

City spokesman Chris Hernandez declined to comment due to the possibility of the city appealing the jury’s verdict.

In the almost five years Berardi has been fire chief, the department has faced nine employment discrimination suits, or 1.4 percent of all suits filed against the city.

“I think anyone would agree that is a very low number, especially for a large department within a city that has approximately 4,400 employees, and which provides hundreds of services to nearly 500,000 residents over 319 square miles,” Hernandez said.

The fire department is currently facing at least two other discrimination lawsuits.

In another suit in Jackson County Circuit Court, Donnel Woods, also a firetruck driver, alleged discrimination when he previously tested for promotions.

Like Jones, Woods also was marked down on the oral video portions of the test. Woods has worked for the department for more than 20 years.

A jury trial is scheduled for Jan. 29, 2018.

In May, African American Field Battalion Chief Stephen Seals sued the city in federal court, citing instances of discriminatory hiring practices in the department and retaliation. He has been with the department since 1995.

The suit says that African American students in the Kansas City Public School District are disadvantaged in applying for open firefighter classes because they cannot get the necessary EMT training in high school, and that an African American man in a 2016 recruitment class was called the “n” word by a white classmate, but no disciplinary action was taken.

Seals’ suit claims he was disciplined and placed on probation for “addressing his concerns with (chief of training Travis) Williams, yet no one else was disciplined for engaging in racist behavior or failing to investigate the racist behavior.”

In its response, the city denied the allegations. A trial date has not been set.

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar

Kelsey Ryan: 816-234-4852, @kelsey_ryan