Jury awards damages to county firemen

Published 7:11 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A federal jury has awarded money to three Decatur County firefighters who claimed they were discriminated because they spoke out during a hiring dispute in 2005.

A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia awarded $250,000 each to two paid Fire and Rescue firefighters and the estate of a third who died after making an initial complaint.

The decision happened Tuesday morning in the Albany, Ga., courtroom of U.S. District Judge W. Lewis Sands. A final judgment could come within the next 30 days, according to County Attorney Brown Moseley. Court staff said further details of Tuesday’s decision were not immediately available.

Email newsletter signup

County Administrator Tom Patton confirmed the jury’s decision but said he could not comment on legal aspects, such as whether the county would appeal the awards, in part because county officials had not yet discussed the outcome. When asked, Patton said the county does have insurance that covers damages arising from a lawsuit.

Moseley announced the decision after county commissioners came out of a closed session to discuss the lawsuit at the end of their Tuesday meeting. In a statement, Board of County Commissioners Chairman Palmer Rich said county leaders were “disappointed” in the verdict.

“It is time to get this matter behind us and move forward,” Rich said in a news release. “With new leadership and structure in the county, we are committed to continue providing a good work environment for all Decatur County employees and to continue to provide excellent service to our citizens.”

In December 2006, Lt. Guy Yates, firefighter Steve Enfinger and the estate of the late Capt. Jimmy Bellflower—all three current and former Decatur County firefighters—filed a civil lawsuit in a federal court claiming they were discriminated against by county government officials. The plaintiffs claim they and Sgt. Kenny King, a fourth firefighter who was not a plaintiff, were treated unfairly when they supported the efforts of a female firefighter to seek fair hiring consideration. King and the lawsuit’s plaintiffs had also spoken publicly about what they viewed to be the wrongful hiring of two other firefighters whom they believed to be incompetent.

Lawsuit stems from another firefighter’s complaint

In their lawsuit, Yates, Enfinger and Bellflower’s estate stated they were discriminated against in three ways.

First, for making statements in support of Michelle Lagace, who filed her own lawsuit—which she later settled—alleging she was discriminated against when she sought employment with Decatur County Fire and Rescue. Lagace was a certified Georgia firefighter who had worked for other departments before applying unsuccessfully in Decatur County.

Second, for filing their own charges of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Third, for speaking publicly about two firefighters who admitted to cheating on their state firefighting certification exams by copying the answers of another firefighter who was hired, in their view, instead of Lagace.

Lagace’s filing of claims with the EEOC and her subsequent lawsuit prompted the incidents and actions that the firefighters claim resulted in their discrimination. The three plaintiffs claim county employees, including the lawsuit’s defendants, began “soliciting and coercing negative statements about Lagace,” ordered county and volunteers firefighters not to have contact with Lagace and ordered them not to allow her on county property. The plaintiffs claim county officials threatened them with punishment if they refused to do so and later disciplined them in retaliation for their support of Lagace and statements about the firefighters who were hired instead of Lagace.

Yates, Enfinger and Bellflower had claimed the work environment at Fire and Rescue had deteriorated into supervisors and former County Administrator Jim Bramblett scrutinizing firefighters’ Internet browsing and even their conversations with each other. On Aug. 5, 2005, the plaintiffs and King were called into a meeting with Bramblett and EMS Director Bill Hogan—who had taken on a dual role as interim fire chief following former Fire Chief Billy Griffin’s resignation.

At the meeting, Bramblett and Hogan suspended the plaintiffs and King from work without pay, placed disciplinary records in their employment, ordered them to attend diversity training on their own time and expense and allegedly threatened them with future retaliation. The four firefighters appealed their punishment and according to them, were told by Bramblett he had disciplined them for eavesdropping on an executive session of the Board of Commissioners in which personnel issues were discussed.

In November and December 2005, the plaintiffs then filed charges of discrimination with the EEOC.

On June 15, 2006, the EEOC released statements it had found that the firefighters’ evidence supported a violation of Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act. An EEOC conciliation meeting was held in Atlanta, Ga., on Aug. 1, 2006, but its attempts to settle the dispute were unsuccessful.

The players

Bellflower, a veteran firefighter, died of a heart attack in July 2006 at the age of 58.

Former Fire and Rescue Chief Griffin, who resigned from his post in May 2006 amidst controversy over the work environment he oversaw, continued working for the county after Bramblett put him in the position of facilities and maintenance director, however Griffin later retired due to health concerns.

County commissioners essentially forced out Bramblett, who resigned in July 2006, due to job performance concerns.

Hogan, who has been employed by Decatur County since April 2005 as EMS director, served as interim fire chief between June 2005 until 2006, when he handed over responsibility of Fire and Rescue to fully focus on his EMS duties.

The four firefighters’ lawsuit had named Hogan, who had handled personnel issues at Fire and Rescue at Bramblett’s request, as a defendant along with Bramblett. However, it is unclear if Tuesday’s decision pertains to Hogan, Bramblett or any other county officials.

County commissioners chose Charlie McCann, who had been assistant fire chief under Griffin, to be fire chief on a permanent basis in June 2008. He had served as interim chief since 2006, along with his duties as local Emergency Management Agency director. The four firefighters had referred to McCann in a small part of their 112-page lawsuit.