A St. Louis Fire Department deputy chief who was passed over for promotion to fire chief in 2007, has won a race discrimination suit against the city.
Deputy Chief Charles Coyle claimed that the city discriminated when it promoted a battalion chief, Dennis Jenkerson, to be the fire chief. Chief Coyle is black and Chief Jenkerson is white.
The city claimed that the promotion was based on Chief Jenkerson’s higher test scores and the fact he was viewed as a better fit by Public Safety Director Charles Bryson, who is black. However, the St. Louis County jury sided with Chief Coyle and awarded $300,000 in actual damages and $50,000 in punitive damages.
The case has to be considered in the context of race relations in the St. Louis Fire Department over the past few years. In 2004, the city’s first black fire chief, Sherman George, refused to promote any firefighters alleging that the 2004 testing process was flawed because it did not adequately judge each candidate’s ability to perform at fires or emergency scenes.
A group of black firefighters, Firefighters’ Institute for Racial Equality, alleged the process was racially biased in favor of whites and filed suit alleging disparate impact discrimination. However, the courts disagreed finding the evidence of disparate impact to be lacking. See Stewart v. City of St. Louis, 532 F.3d 939 (8th Cir., 2008).
Meanwhile, a lawsuit was filed by several firefighters who were on the promotional lists as well as the firefighters’ union, seeking to compel the chief to make the promotions. The trial court sided with the firefighters, but in 2005 the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld Chief George, finding that he had the discretion to promote or not. See State ex rel. Killingsworth v. George, 168 SW 3d 621 (MO App.,2005)
By 2007, no promotions had been made and a showdown developed between Chief George and Mayor Francis Slay (who is white), along with his Public Safety Director, Charles Bryson. Chief George refused Bryson’s direct order to make the promotions and was demoted to deputy chief. An acting chief, Deputy Chief Steve Kotraba, was appointed and he made the promotions.
Chief George subsequently appealed his demotion, first through the civil service process and then through the courts. He also filed a separate race discrimination suit. Shortly after the demotion he opted to retire. In 2010, Chief George lost both his appeal and his discrimination lawsuit.
It was in this context that Chief Coyle claims he was passed over for promotion to fire chief as the successor to Chief George. No word yet on an appeal.