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St. Petersburg firefighter alleges racial discrimination, harassment in federal lawsuit

ST. PETERSBURG — A firefighter has filed a federal lawsuit against the city alleging racial discrimination in the promotion of new lieutenants at St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue.

The plaintiff is Sean Thornton, an African-American firefighter and emergency medical technician who has worked for the city for 13 years. In a suit filed last week, he also alleged that the city of St. Petersburg and Fire Chief James Large violated his civil rights and retaliated against him.

Thornton said his complaints earned him the ire of white firefighters, who retaliated against him. He is seeking thousands in compensatory damages.

"The retaliation includes ... white firefighters tampering with (Thornton's) equipment, making prank phone calls to his personal telephone, and cursing at him," according to the lawsuit.

Thornton's suit alleges that white firefighters who vied for promotion to lieutenant have an "unfair advantage." Before oral exams, the suit said, it is "common knowledge ... that white lieutenants would give white candidates copies of the pre-prepared checklists for the upcoming exam."

The suit said when he was first hired, other black firefighters told Thornton there was "no use" in taking the lieutenant's test because "blacks were almost never promoted." He also filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2007.

Thornton's suit said he met with Large in February 2009 to discuss his complaints. He said Large denied there was cheating.

Then in April 2009, according to Thornton, a white firefighter provided him with a copy of the checklist for the 2009 exam. He turned in the checklist, the suit said, which resulted in a memo but no disciplinary action. But the suit said his complaints led to "harassment" and "retaliation" from other firefighters.

In a written response, the city said Thornton's complaints did not amount to "cheating," that the checklist Thornton was given in 2009 was a "study guide" and that he provided "limited information" to an internal inquiry of the matter. The city said "prank phone calls" were reported but denied there was retaliation.

Large referred all questions to the city attorney's office. A city attorney declined to comment Tuesday, but noted that the EEOC dismissed the complaint. Thornton's attorney did not return a call for comment.

St. Petersburg firefighter alleges racial discrimination, harassment in federal lawsuit 12/20/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 9:13pm]
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