Former white male employee of West Columbia FD files suit alleging discrimination
West Columbia, SC – 05/08/2021 (Paul Kirby) – A former lieutenant with the West Columbia City Fire Department has filed a suit against the city alleging that the city discriminated against him based on the fact that he is a white man. Michael A. Jordan was an employee of the city for approximately ten years when he was forced to resign.
According to the suit filed in March of 2021, Jordan was working as a lieutenant with the Fire Department when he was accused of hindering a subordinate’s career advancement by not allowing her to drive the Department's fire apparatus. The employee, a white female, also accused Jordan of being homophobic and harassing her by assigning her more work than other employees.
The suit details a meeting held in April of 2019 where Jordan was questioned about his supervision of the female employee. In that meeting, Fire Chief Chris Smith, Deputy Chief Marquis Solomon, and Captain Russell Derrick, all superiors of Lt. Jordan, were in attendance. When the complaint of the female subordinate and the alleged extra duties were addressed, Lt. Jordan explained that he did not make the work schedule the captain did; in fact, he had no control over that. Once Captain Derrick confirmed this, the group moved on to the complaint about the the same female employee driving the equipment.
Jordan explained to the group that he was simply following procedures that established who could drive the fire apparatus. Those procedures required that a driver’s packet had to be complete, or be in the process of being completed, for an employee of the Fire Department to drive the city’s equipment to emergency calls. That packet was to be completed by the employee’s supervisor and since the employee was assigned to the truck of another female lieutenant, not Jordan, that lieutenant should have been responsible for completing the packet.
In that same meeting, the supervisors asked about Jordan’s work relationship with the other lieutenant who is also a white female and the female subordinate. Jordan explained to his superiors that he had no problem working with these two individuals.
Jordan’s supervisors reminded him that he was to be working on a performance improvement plan (PIP) that was put in place in 2018 after it was alleged that Jordan did not communicate well with the female lieutenant who worked at the Fire Department. After those allegations were made, Jordan was required to sit through leadership courses and the PlP was implemented. However, a female of the same rank was also said to have the same performance deficiencies but she was not required to take the classes and was never issued a PIP.
According to the suit, in April of 2019, Jordan was working some voluntary overtime with Captain John Jones who is a black male. Jones asked to speak with Jordan about the complaints made by the two female employees of the department. Captain Jones told Jordan that the complaints made by the ladies were determined to be false and Jones had held a serious discussion with the two women about reporting false accusations. During that conversation, Jordan expressed concern to Captain Jones that he was being targeted as a male and said he was having to constantly defend himself against accusation made by the two female employees. No specific action followed when Jordan made the captain aware of his concerns.
On May 20, 2019, Jordan was working at the Fire Department with six other employees. They were in the kitchen and three employees were seated around the table while two cooked and one was washing dishes. During this time, another white male employee of the department, asked a female firefighter a question about watermelons. The white female from the earlier complaint was there and apparently she had a background in horticulture, The white male employee asked, “How do you know when watermelons are ready to be picked?” This question caused many of the other firefighters to start laughing. Jordan, whose grandfather was a farmer that used to plant watermelons, then struck up a conversation with the man who asked the question about that topic while the other employees in the kitchen continued talking amongst themselves.
On May 23rd, Deputy Chief Solomon and Captain Jones asked Jordan to come into the office and meet with them. Jordan was questioned about the conversation and any comments that were made while he was sitting at the kitchen table a few days before. Jordan told his supervisors that he had been seated at the table and was only aware of the conversation that was ongoing around him. He said he heard the question the firefighter posed about watermelons, and then detailed his explanation of the firefighter's question to the superiors. Subsequently, all the employees on duty during that shift were called into the office and questioned. Finally, Captain Derrick was called into the office and asked about the same kitchen conversation about the watermelons.
Once everyone who was working at the time had been questioned about the incident in the kitchen, all the members of the shift were summonsed to a meeting with Deputy Chief Solomon, Captain Jones, and Captain Derrick together. Jordan reiterated his recollection about the details of the conversation. This was just as he had done when he met earlier with his supervisors. According to the suit, during this meeting with the entire group of employees, Deputy Chief Solomon prodded Jordan asking him why he didn’t hear the entire conversation that took place in the kitchen that day. Jordan explained that he had been at the table talking with other firefighters at the time. Jordan was asked if an alleged comment made in the kitchen that day was brought to his attention. At that point, Jordan explained that no one had made him aware of any comment.
All the firefighters were asked during the morning shift meeting to write and submit written statements regarding the conversation in the kitchen to Deputy Chief Solomon before lunch that day. In this shift meeting, an engineer (driver/operator) who had been working that day told everyone about a comment he had made in the kitchen when the question about the watermelons was asked. According to that engineer, he said that it was a good thing that the white male firefighter didn’t ask Captain Jones, one of the black supervisors, the question about the watermelons because it would have been taken the wrong way. Jordan said that this was the first time he had been made aware of that employee's comment.
Later that evening, Captain Derrick informed Lt. Jordan that someone had reported the engineer's comment to Captain Jones who wanted to investigate the conversation. After gathering further information from other employees, Jordan came to believe that the female employee who he had experienced the conflict with previously had made the report of the engineer's comment to Captain Jones. In fact, Captain Derrick said that when he asked her about her memory of the conversation in front of Captain Jones and Deputy Chief Solomon, she said that she asked the female lieutenant if she had heard about the comment. At that point, it was that lieutenant who had instructed her to take the complaint to Captain Jones.
On May 28th, Fire Chief Chris Smith asked Lt. Jordan to meet with him. When Jordan reported for the meeting, Smith, Solomon, and Carrie Garnett, an employee of the City’s Human Resources Department, were waiting for him. During this meeting, Jordan was provided with a personnel report form and told he could either resign or be terminated immediately. Jordan said he felt as if he had to resign in order not to tarnish his career. According to Jordan’s attorneys, this amounts to a constructive discharge. Jordan was told he was being forced into this action because he had done nothing about the engineer’s comment in the kitchen during the conversation about the watermelons. Jordan once again explained to the group that he had not heard that comment at the time and therefore he could not take action against the engineer for something he simply did not hear.
The next day, Jordan once again met with the Human Resources Department representative to ask for a copy of his personnel file. During that meeting, Jordan asked Garret how the situation escalated to the point he was to be terminated. Garret said that the city’s administrator had made the decision after reviewing all the employee’s statements. This included one made by the female lieutenant. Garret told Jordan during this meeting that his termination was based solely on the, “watermelon incident.”
After being dismissed from his job, Jordan learned that other employees involved in the “watermelon incident” who were not white, or male received a lesser degree or no punishment at all because of that conversation. Now Jordan feels he was terminated based on his gender and race. According to his attorneys, that is in direct violation of the Civil Rights Act and South Carolina’s Human Affair Law.
In Jordan’s suit, he is asking for damages that include back pay, loss of benefits, front pay, loss of his earning capacity, loss of any future benefits and compensation for any emotional or mental anguish and damages as well as any other relief the court deems appropriate. He is also asking that the City pay his attorney fees and any cost related to this action.
Jordan alleges that disciplinary actions taken by the City toward him were disproportionate and unfair to that of others. Especially when compared to actions that were taken against female employees in positions similar to his. In the suit, he specifically mentions the two females by name as employees that were aware of the comment during the conversation about watermelons.
Michael Jordan also says that when he complained to Captain Jones about being treated in a hostile manner after he voiced his concerns that female employees were receiving preferential treatment, his complaint was ignored and disregarded. This subsequently caused him to be unjustly reprimanded and, in the end, ultimately terminated.
The City was served with the suit in March of 2021. Governments and their associated departments or agencies do not normally comment on pending legal actions. It may take some time for Jordan’s suit to be fully addressed. It remains to be seen if this suit or its outcome will ever be heard in an open courtroom. If it makes it to court, the City and the Department will have an opportunity to tell their sides of this story.