A U.S. District Court in Nevada has found the City of Las Vegas and former Las Vegas Fire Chief, David Washington, guilty of racial discrimination against Ken Riddle. Riddle was awarded $365 thousand in compensatory damages and $25 thousand in punitive damages against Washington. Under federal law, punitive damages can be awarded if malice is proven.
Former Fire Deputy Chief Riddle began working for the City of Las Vegas Fire Department in 1978. In 1995, he was promoted to a Deputy Fire Chief position. On July 20, 2006, Riddle was fired. Riddle subsequently sued the city and Washington for racial discrimination, saying his race, Caucasian, was a “determinative factor” in his termination by Washington, an African-American.
According to Washington, while supervising Riddle, he encountered continuing problems with Riddle’s behavior and job performance, and spoke to him regarding such routine disappearances, smoking in his office, and misusing credit cards belonging to professional associations. According to Riddle, Washington never spoke to him about any such disappearances and that he quit smoking in his office when Washington made a passing comment in 2004, three years before his termination. Regarding the misuse of credit cards Riddle admitted he mistakenly used the credit card, that Washington reprimanded him, and certain restrictions were placed on him as a disciplinary measure. Riddle claimed that though he stopped smoking, in November 2005 Washington suspended him after receiving a complaint that Riddle was smoking in his city vehicle. When the same complainant made a similar complaint in July 2006, Washington terminated Riddle due to his “repeated violations of city policy” and repeated lies over a four-year period.
From 2001 to 2006, Riddle received numerous merit increases. In 2006, he also received an excellent review (7.5 out of 10) from Washington. After Riddle’s termination, Washington promoted an African-American to fill Riddle’s former position.
Riddle brought suit under (1) Title VII against the city of Las Vegas; (2) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Washington for wrongful termination; (3) 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Las Vegas for termination in violation of the equal protection laws; (4) 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Washington and the City of Las Vegas; and (5) Nev. Rev. Stat. §613.333 for unlawful employment practices. The § 1981 claim was brought as an alternative to § 1983 only if Washington was found not to have been acting under color of state law. In his lawsuit, Riddle also noted that under section 3.210 of the Las Vegas City Charter, his termination was required to be ratified by the Las Vegas City Council. However, after his termination the City Council revoked section 3.210.
In April 2010, the District Court granted defendants a summary judgment. The District Court found that while Riddle met his burden of establishing a prima facie case of discrimination, Defendants met their burden of production to show a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for termination and Riddle failed to raise a triable issue of fact with respect to whether he was terminated for a discriminatory reason. Riddle appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, finding that Washington’s promotion of an African-American to replace Riddle with someone who knew nothing about the areas in which he had previously been promoted, along with Riddle’s excellent job performance reviews, and the materially disputed aspects of his performance provide a sufficient basis for a reasonable juror to find that Defendants’ reasons for Riddle’s termination were a pretext.
Prior to Washington’s retirement in 2007, a survey conducted by the city of Las Vegas revealed that Las Vegas Fire & Rescue employees believed race and gender bias ran rampant in the department. According to survey results:
• 86-percent of fire and rescue employees are men compared to just 14-percent women.
• 75-percent are white, compared to 50-percent of the city’s population.
• 11-percent are Hispanic, compared to 31-percent of the population.
• 9-percent are black, compared to 10-percent of the population.
• 3-percent of employees are Asian, compared to 6-percent of the population.
Survey comments, included:
• “The promotional process is definitely biased.”
• “Management bases decisions upon ‘who is a friend.”
• “Equal opportunity applies only if you are black, Mormon or female.”
Current Las Vegas City Manager Doug Selby says the survey results are playing in his ultimate decision for the Washington’s replacement as the new fire chief will be expected to make it a top priority to address the issues raised in this diversity survey.
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