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Black Newton firefighter files discrimination lawsuit against city, department

Newton Fire Department Station 4.
Newton Fire Department Station 4.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

A Black 17-year veteran Newton firefighter has filed a lawsuit against the city and the Fire Department alleging that he has experienced a hostile work environment and repeated use of racist language, court documents show.

Lee Gilliam alleges that there are only about 10 Black firefighters in the department and that the “racial imbalance” has fostered an environment in which white “firefighters generally feel free to make insensitive and degrading comments concerning African Americans without consequence,” according to court filings.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Middlesex Superior Court claims that senior department officials “foster these racist attitudes and ideals” and seeks unspecified monetary damages, and other fees associated with the case, the filings show.

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Gilliam’s attorney, David Summer, said his client “just wants to be a firefighter for the City of Newton.”

“He doesn’t want to go to work and experience inappropriate racial comments and inappropriate racial discussions,” Summer said in an interview Thursday.

Newton’s director of human resources, Michelle Pizzi O’Brien, said the city values its employees and hired an investigator who began looking into Gilliam’s allegations weeks ago.

“We are committed to providing a workplace where all our employees feel welcome, included and heard,” she said in a statement Thursday.

The investigation is ongoing, and it is not yet known when it will be completed, O’Brien said.

”. . . But we are moving forward with a sense of urgency regarding this matter,” O’Brien said in a second statement Thursday evening.

Gilliam’s court filings allege a pattern of racist behavior by his superiors and fellow firefighters over a period of more than a decade.

When Gilliam reported that a lieutenant had called him the N-word, an investigation found that it was true, but Gilliam rather than the lieutenant was reassigned to a different unit, according to court documents. Gilliam was later placed in a unit where he frequently came into contact with the lieutenant, the documents show.

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In 2018, Gilliam was passed over for a promotion that went to a white firefighter with “significantly less experience,” according to the filings. When he asked the lieutenant why he had not been promoted, the lieutenant said Gilliam “lacked intelligence” in front of his coworkers, the documents show.

When Gilliam approached the chief about these experiences, the chief recommended that Gilliam seek another transfer and initiated the move, according to the filings.

Another firefighter was fired for calling Gilliam the N-word and other racial slurs, but the city did nothing afterward to address the broader issue of racism in firehouses, Gilliam alleges.

The stress at work led to Gilliam “suffering a breakdown” and being hospitalized for three weeks in October 2018, but his request for medical leave was turned down, the documents show.

Gilliam still suffers “from severe emotional distress, is being treated with a variety of prescription medications, and he is seeking ongoing out-patient treatment as a result of the repeated harassment and intolerance he has been subjected to,” according to court filings.

The lawsuit is the second time in six years that Gilliam has been involved in an employment issue with the city. He was placed on paid administrative leave in 2015 after he was charged with domestic violence and kidnapping.

In that case, Gilliam was accused of repeatedly punching his ex-girlfriend, dragging her to his car, and holding her in their apartment against her will, but Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan dropped those charges, saying prosecutors didn’t have enough evidence to convict him.

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Summer, Gilliam’s attorney, said Thursday that it had been proved that Gilliam was in another location at the time his ex-girlfriend alleged he had attacked her.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.