Judge orders commission to reconsider Brookline firefighter discrimination case
A Superior Court judge has ordered a state commission to reconsider whether the town of Brookline discriminated against a black firefighter who was fired in 2016.
In a 20-page decision handed down last week, Judge Douglas H. Wilkins ordered the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission to determine whether Gerald Alston was the victim of racial bias. The commission had previously ruled that the town was justified in firing Alston, saying he was not fit for the job.
Alston appealed, and Wilkins ruled in his favor, writing that he was fired for refusing to “endure an unlawful, racially hostile environment.”
The order means that Alston has a chance to regain his job, said his lawyer, Brooks Ames.
“We’re happy,” Ames said.
In an e-mail, Brookline Town Counsel Joslin Murphy said Wilkins’ decision “determined only a technical legal question” and that no decision has been made on the merits of Alston’s case.
In 2016, Alston was fired for his “incapacity to perform the essential functions of his firefighting position,” town officials said. Psychiatrists had “determined that he was unfit for duty after he made shooting statements at work and was discovered to have used cocaine during his employment,” Murphy said.
By that time, Alston had complained about racism in the Brookline Fire Department for years.
According to court documents, a superior officer left Alston a voicemail message in May 2010 that included the N-word. The officer, identified in the judge’s order as Paul Pender, later apologized and said the slur was not referring to Alston but a black “gangbanger” who cut him off in traffic, according to the ruling.
Pender was disciplined for four days, but was later promoted from lieutenant to acting captain. Almost six years later, he was appointed acting deputy fire chief, which did not escape Wilkins’ notice.
“[T]he court has no choice at this point but to draw the inference that the town willingly appointed a known racist, particularly where other evidence tended to show a racially hostile working environment,” Wilkins wrote.
Alston’s case suggests that Brookline maintained a “racially hostile environment, took no serious steps to address the problem, and allowed racial hostility at work to cause harm to Alston’s psyche,” Wilkins wrote.
Fire department officials could not be reached for comment.
In December 2013, Alston said he saw the word “Leave” written in dust on a piece of fire equipment, which he took as “a highly offensive attack on him personally,” according to court documents.
Alston was placed on administrative leave that same month, after officials said he made threatening remarks on the job. He was fired in October 2016.
The next year, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission upheld the town’s decision to fire Alston.
The commission had dismissed Alston’s case without a hearing based on “undisputed evidence” that he was unfit for duty, said Murphy, the Brookline town counsel.
The town is also preparing for a trial in a federal lawsuit Alston brought against Brookline, Murphy said.