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Streater v. City of Camden Fire Dep't

March 17, 2008

SHANE B. STREATER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CITY OF CAMDEN FIRE DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Simandle, District Judge

[relates to Docket Item 15]

OPINION

Plaintiff Shane B. Streater filed the instant action, alleging that over the course of his employment at the City of Camden Fire Department, he was discriminated against on account of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. Presently before the Court is Defendant's motion for summary judgment [Docket Item 15]. For the following reasons, the Court will deny Defendant's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, who is African American, was hired by the City of Camden Fire Department (the "Fire Department") as a firefighter-recruit on February 3, 1997. (Compl. ¶¶ 6, 8.) After he completed his training at the academy, Plaintiff was assigned to Tower Ladder Company Number Two (the "station"), where his supervisor was Captain Russell Watkins. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 9.)

Plaintiff alleges in his Complaint that "[s]hortly after [P]laintiff was assigned to that station[,] Captain Watkins, his supervisor, made 'jokes' that were derogatory to African-Americans." (Id. at ¶ 10.) According to Plaintiff, Captain Watkins, who is Caucasian, made these jokes "habitually," at times in the presence of other firefighters, and at times to Plaintiff when the two of them were alone. (Id. at ¶¶ 7, 11; Pl.'s Opp'n Br. Ex. A 1.) Among the derogatory comments Plaintiff alleges that Captain Watkins made on a regular basis were the Captain's statement that he knew "white guys who have machetes"; that "white boys with machetes ain't no joke"; and that "there's going to be a race war coming, and there's a militia in every state." (Compl. at ¶ 12; Pl's Opp'n Br. Ex. B 79.)

According to Plaintiff, Captain Watkins was "hostile" and "violent" when he made some of these statements, and Plaintiff alleges that "[t]hese comments and others caused [him] to be fearful and distrustful of his supervisor." (Compl. ¶ 13.) Although Plaintiff concedes that he never filed a formal grievance report with the Fire Administration or his union regarding Captain Watkins' conduct, (Streater Statement of Undisputed Facts ("S.U.F.") ¶¶ 7-8), he claims to have brought Captain Watkins' behavior to the attention of Kenneth Chambers, the president of the firefighters' union,*fn1 and Captain Darryl Davis, but alleges that neither took any action in response to his concerns. (Pl's Opp'n Br. Ex. B 111-12.) With regard to Mr. Chambers in particular, Plaintiff testified during his deposition that Mr. Chambers "made a joke of the situation" and indicated that Plaintiff should "beat [Captain Watkins] down" in response to the Captain's derogatory remarks. (Id. at 111.)

On January 24, 2001, Plaintiff filed a complaint about Captain Watkins' conduct with the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety's Division of Civil Rights ("DCR"). (Pl's Opp'n Br. Ex. A 1.) In his complaint, Plaintiff alleged that he had been subjected to unlawful discrimination on account of his race, specifically citing Captain Watkins' "harass[ment]" and "racial statements." (Id.) DCR conducted an investigation into Plaintiff's allegations, interviewing Plaintiff, Captain Watkins, Captain Davis, and thirteen of Captain Watkins' co-workers, and on October 4, 2002 it issued a finding of probable cause to credit the allegations in Plaintiff's complaint. (Id. at 1-2.) In the finding of probable cause, the DCR noted that while Captain Watkins denied having discriminated against Plaintiff on account of his race, many of the Fire Department employees interviewed over the course of the investigation revealed that Captain Watkins frequently made "racial jokes." (Id.) Specifically, Captain Davis "confirmed that Captain Watkins always made racial jokes[, but because] he knew that Captain Watkins was joking . . . he did not take offense at the jokes." (Id. at 1.) In addition, firefighters Joseph Tull, Sr., and Edwin Citron informed the DCR that Captain Watkins had made "racial jokes" and "racial comments" to them, and firefighter Richard Marnin confirmed that Captain Watkins "was a loud-mouth, always joking." (Id. at 2.) Firefighters King Whitfield, Dennis Deal, Kenneth Chambers, and Daniel Neiling reported that Captain Watkins "habitually joked," and Mr. Neiling stated that Plaintiff "had informed him that Captain Watkins was harassing him and he had made statements to him about machetes and a militia in New Jersey." (Id.)

In response to Plaintiff's DCR complaint, the City of Camden hired Phyllis Krichev Associates ("PKA") to investigate Plaintiff's allegations of harassment. (Pl's Opp'n Br. Ex. C.) In its July 10, 2001 report regarding the investigation, PKA indicated that it interviewed numerous Fire Department employees but that none confirmed that Captain Watkins had harassed Plaintiff. (Id.)

At approximately the same time that Plaintiff started complaining that he was being harassed by Captain Watkins, he was charged with multiple disciplinary violations and performance-related problems at the station. On December 4, 2000, Plaintiff did not follow departmental procedures for reporting that he would not be on duty and was charged with being absent without leave ("AWOL"). (Def.'s Br. Ex. B 12-14.) On December 16, 2000, Plaintiff was charged with being insubordinate to Captain Watkins as a result of an incident in which he refused to obey the Captain's order to clean up a mess he had left in the station's kitchen and shouted obscenities at the Captain. (Def.'s Br. Ex. C 76-78.) On April 2, 2001, Plaintiff was again charged with being AWOL for the morning shift and was also charged with being late for duty for the evening shift. (Def.'s Br. Ex. B 5-9.)

Plaintiff's employment with the Fire Department was terminated on May 1, 2001 as a result of a departmental hearing that upheld the majority of charges that had been leveled against Plaintiff. (Id.) Plaintiff appealed the issue of his termination to the New Jersey Department of Personnel ("DOP"), which referred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law. (Def.'s Br. Ex. N.) Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") Robert S. Miller conducted a hearing at which multiple witnesses testified, none of whom indicated that Plaintiff's disciplinary record was the product of racial discrimination.*fn2 (Id. at 2.) In a December 8, 2003 decision, ALJ Miller upheld the decision to terminate Plaintiff, rejecting Plaintiff's claim that his poor disciplinary record was the product of Captain Watkins' discrimination rather than Plaintiff's own misconduct. (Id.) The DOP subsequently adopted ALJ Miller's findings of fact, but did not uphold the ALJ's recommendation to sustain Plaintiff's termination, and reduced Plaintiff's penalty to a 120-day suspension. (Def.'s Br. Ex. P 3.) The parties appealed the DOP decision to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey, which affirmed the DOP decision on June 24, 2005. (Def.'s Br. Ex. Q.) Plaintiff returned to work at the Fire Department on October 6, 2004. (Def.'s Br. Ex. R.)

Plaintiff filed his Complaint in this case on May 24, 2005 [Docket Item 1]. The dispute was referred to arbitration, and after the arbitrator filed an award on March 2, 2007, Plaintiff timely filed a request for trial de novo [Docket Item 12]. The motion for summary judgment presently before the Court followed, to which the Court now turns.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Standard of ...


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