Federal lawsuit accuses Del. FD of years of racial, religious discrimination

A 23-year Wilmington veteran was subjected to racial slurs by other firefighters and senior management along with harassment over his beliefs, the suit says

Amanda Fries
Dover Post, Del.

WILMINGTON, Del. — A veteran firefighter is accusing the Wilmington Fire Department of years of racial and religious discrimination that created a hostile work environment and failed to discipline the perpetrators, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court.

On more than one occasion, high-ranking officials as well as other firefighters used racial epithets in conversation with or to insult veteran firefighter Corey Ferrell; played the "Aladdin theme song to plaintiff whenever he would go to pray;" and snuck pork products — which Ferrell cannot consume — in his coffee and turnout gear, according to the federal discrimination lawsuit filed against the city of Wilmington, its Fire Department and top officials on Nov. 10.

"At all times, Wilmington Fire Department management were aware of the misconduct plaintiff received, however, no actions were ever taken," a lawsuit against the department states. (Photo/Wilmington Fire Department via Facebook)

The city declined to comment for this story, noting that the Law Department is reviewing the lawsuit.

Ferrell was regularly subjected to racial slurs by other firefighters and senior management along with harassment over his religious beliefs, according to the suit. The 23-year veteran of the department is African American and a practicing Muslim.

The department's racial makeup is overwhelmingly white and male despite Wilmington's population being nearly 60% Black or African American.

According to the latest department staffing report, white male firefighters make up about 64% of the 162 total employees. Black male employees account for 18.5%, Hispanic male employees account for 9.3%, and Asian male employees make up 1.2%.

Those demographics have remained largely unchanged since at least 2018, according to a 2018 staffing report, but, at that time, there were 150 people in the department and Black or African American men accounted for 20% of the workforce.

Females of all races employed in the department are scarce. While the department increased its representation in females by two additional people from 2018, four hold civilian positions and only two are firefighters. The remaining four are probationary firefighters.

From the outset of employment, Ferrell was subjected to inappropriate behavior by his superiors, the lawsuit says. Ferrell joined the department in 1998, and shortly thereafter was riding on a truck when a lieutenant "called a Black woman who was walking down the street a 'Black n*---- b*----.'"

Ferrell reported the lieutenant's racial slur to management, but the lieutenant was never disciplined. Instead, Ferrell was retaliated for reporting the inappropriate behavior and "disciplined for insubordination," the lawsuit alleges.

But even when Ferrell reported the incidents to management, nothing was done to address the hostile environment.

"At all times, Wilmington Fire Department management were aware of the misconduct plaintiff received, however, no actions were ever taken," the lawsuit states. "Furthermore, plaintiff had to endure on an almost everyday basis comments and actions from other firefighters that would constantly degrade and insult plaintiff's religion."

When Ferrell would go to pray, firefighters would state to him "there goes Ali Baba on his magic carpet" and play the Aladdin theme song at the station, the lawsuit claims. "On another occasion at the fire station, other firefighters poured pork grease into plaintiff's coffee cup, even after knowing he cannot consume pork because of his religious beliefs."

This time, Ferrell reported the incident to a battalion chief, according to the lawsuit, but again, no one was disciplined.

On another occasion, Ferrell's wife brought a turducken to the station for Thanksgiving in 2017, to which a captain said, "I did not think you shama-lama-ding-dong Muslims celebrated Thanksgiving."

The lawsuit also alleges the department disciplines African American firefighters harsher than white firefighters.The suit says senior officials ordered Ferrell to move his vehicle away from a fire hydrant near the station but did not take the same action with other employees. Ferrell reported the incident on June 4, 2018, to another lieutenant believing it was "unfair treatment."

Shortly after reporting the incident, Ferrell was again asked by a lieutenant to move his truck even after a captain-ranked official acknowledged Ferrell's truck wasn't near the fire hydrant. The lieutenant insisted Ferrell move the truck regardless. Then on June 27, 2018, Farrell was suspended for 45 days without pay, the lawsuit states.

In another instance, Ferrell faced discipline for wearing civilian clothes when responding to an emergency incident. A trial board hearing found Ferrell not guilty — the firefighter had just arrived at the station when he responded to the call.

Ferrell also tried to resolve issues by filing complaints with human resources and compliance officials, but still little was done to address the problems.

"After plaintiff's multiple reports of the discriminatory treatment he was receiving, (the city) continued to take no action," legal documents state. "As a result of defendant's severe and pervasive discriminatory conduct plaintiff has been subjected to a hostile work environment which has caused him stress, anxiety, humiliation, insecurity and emotional damage."

Ferrell's attorney Michele Allen, of Allen Labor Law, did not respond to requests for comment.

The lawsuit seeks to declare the city department's conduct discriminatory and for Ferrell to be awarded an undetermined amount of money for damages, including lost wages and benefits, punitive damages, compensation for the city's violations and attorney's fees.

(c)2021 Dover Post

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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