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2 Mass. FD officers allege racism, harassment in lawsuit

The district chief and lieutenant claim firefighters posted racist social media posts, promoted violence against minorities and made threats against them


Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno greets District Chief Marc Savage during a swearing in ceremony in February 2020. Savage is one of two fire department officers suing the city in U.S. District Court for alleged discrimination and harassment.

Photo/Hoang ‘Leon’ Nguyen, The Republican

Peter Goonan
The Republican, Springfield, Mass.

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Two Fire Department supervisors have included allegations of racist Facebook posts, harassment, and retaliation in a newly amended federal lawsuit against the city.

The Black fire supervisors — District Chief Marc Savage and Fire Lt. Randolph Blake — amended their 2018 civil suit in U.S. District Court on Friday by adding newer allegations, and by adding current Fire Commissioner Bernard J. Calvi as a defendant, their lawyer said in a prepared release.

The fire supervisors’ lawyer, Arnold J. Lizana III, of Atlanta, Georgia, said the amended complaint claims that under former Fire Commissioner Joseph Conant’s leadership, “Black firefighters were allegedly subjected to offensive social media posts” on a Fire Department-sponsored platform.

Lizana, in the prepared release. said the comments were “shocking to anyone who values decency and respect in the workplace.”

As one example, Lizana said that white firefighters posted an image depicting a group of enslaved black people standing behind a Slave Master, with the caption “You never picked any cotton -- Get over it.” That specific case dates back to 2016, Lizana said.

City Solicitor Edward M. Pikula said the city is in the process of responding to the amended complaint.

However, “my initial impression is that neither the press release, nor the amended complaint filed with the court Friday evening, accurately portray the work environment in the Springfield Fire Department or even the court’s decision to allow amendment of this case that was filed a few years ago,” Pikula said.

In addition, Pikula said he believes each of the allegations regarding social media posts were investigated, and in cases where the city received timely information to corroborate violation of department rules, resulted “in discipline, up to and including termination.”

Pikula, in response to a request for information from The Republican, did not identify which department employees were disciplined, and the specific penalties.

The updated federal suit also alleged:

That the city created a hostile work environment that led to a verbal assault and “offensive racial slurs” against Blake by a firefighter in June of 2019. The city was previously warned about prior alleged social media harassment and physical threats to Blake and Savage, but the behavior was not addressed, the suit said.

That Savage spoke with Calvi in March of 2019 about his concerns that he was being subjected to discrimination and retaliation by a district chief due to active lawsuits against the city. The suit claims that Calvi in response said that if Savage wanted to be promoted to district chief, he needed “to leave the legal issue of residency outside the department.” Savage was promoted to district chief in February.

That in late 2019, the city threatened disciplinary action against Blake after he complained to a Human Resources official about the department’s alleged discriminatory hiring.

The original lawsuit claims the city and its Fire Department violated discrimination laws and the constitutional equal protection rights of minority firefighters.

The suit also claims that Black firefighters were denied promotion opportunities by the city’s failure to enforce its residency against white non-residents.

“Several other graphic images defended the Confederate flag, promoted violence against Black Lives Matter protesters and advocated the extermination of all Muslims,” Lazana said in his prepared statement regarding posts on Facebook. ”The amended complaint also alleges that when Black firefighters complained about the harassment and discrimination, they received a threat that they could be left to die in a fire if they were ever overcome by smoke.”

The federal suit lists the names of multiple fire supervisors who allegedly have posted offensive images on Facebook. One of the Facebook pages was created for current and retired members of the Fire Department, the suit said.

In January of 2019, the city reached agreement with its first labor group -- the district fire chiefs -- regarding a new social media policy and warned of disciplinary action for violations, including information that “unlawfully harasses, threatens or discriminates against others”

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno at the time had criticized social media comments involving fire and police personnel.

The current suit attempted to add Sarno as a plaintiff, but that was denied, Pikula said.

“The internet postings alleged involve some despicable remarks which we condemn,” Pikula said. “However, employee postings made on personal time and in chat rooms not authorized by the City is a problem all employers are struggling with as to how properly to monitor and control every time someone posts or “likes” a post on social media.”

Lizana said the city and fire commissioners “can not be allowed to ignore their obligation to protect minority firefighters from egregious racial and religious harassment.”

“The city’s continued retaliation against the African-American firefighters who are advocating for inclusion is unacceptable, and must stop,” Lizana said.

The city’s residency requirement has been a source of controversy for decades, including if existing personnel were required to live in Springfield, or when promoted.

The city in recent years has reached contract settlements with city employee groups that requires residency for newly hired employees..

The lawsuit “seeks a court order requiring the City to comply with its residency ordinance and compensation for lost income incurred by minority firefighters who were denied promotional opportunities,” Lizana said.

Savage had also filed complaints against the city with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and in a suit filed in Hampden Superior Court. He had sought the position of deputy fire chief in 2014.

As of last January, the MCAD had dismissed Savage’s complaint, ruling that he failed to show sufficient evidence that he was discriminated against because of color and religion.

A ruling from Superior Court is believed to be still pending, regarding a civil suit filed by Savage and 10 other residents in 2016, claiming the city has failed to uphold a residency requirement for promotions. The city denies the claim.


©2020 The Republican, Springfield, Mass.