Jury Awards $135,000 Each to Four White Fire Captains

Brendan Kirby, Mobile Register, Dec. 10, 2005

A federal jury Friday awarded four white fire captains $135,000 each after determining that the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department discriminated against them by passing them over for promotion two years ago.

The reverse-discrimination verdict is the second in as many years against the department and deals a serious blow to Chief Steve Dean’s efforts to improve diversity in the upper management ranks.

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Melvin Stringfellow, Stanley Vinson, Kenneth Tillman and Onrie “Diddy” Brown sued the city last year after they failed to win promotion to district chief, a position responsible for overseeing fire and rescue operations in a section of the city. The promotion instead went to Johnny Morris, a black man with less education, less experience and lower scores on the promotion exams.

The eight-member panel, which included one black juror, ruled unanimously that Dean discriminated against the men. They awarded $10,000 to each plaintiff in lost wages and benefits and $125,000 to each for emotional pain and anguish.

Chief U.S. District Judge Ginny Granade at a later date could add more money to compensate the men for wages they would have earned in the future had they been promoted.

The case bore a striking resemblance to a lawsuit brought last year by Alan Silvester, a white captain who lost out to a black applicant for promotion to fire administrator. After a jury found in Silvester’s favor, the city appealed and two sides settled the dispute for $300,000.

As in the Silvester case, the plaintiffs argued that Dean promoted a less-qualified black man. According to testimony at the trial, all four plaintiffs had college degrees, whereas Morris had none. Morris had been a captain for less than three years, with about 10 years with the department. The plaintiffs had significantly more time on the force and in captain positions.

In addition, Morris ranked ninth out of 12 on the Personnel Board’s list of eligible candidates, behind all of the plaintiffs.

Smith argued throughout the four-day trial that Dean buckled under pressure from Mobile’s black city councilmen. Testimony included a letter written to Dean by former Councilman Thomas Sullivan in December 2003 urging him to consider black firefighters for the district chief slot.

“Chief Dean may not be a bad man, but I think he’s a weak man. . . I think he succumbed to political pressure,” Smith said during his closing argument.

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