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Judge reverses black fire chief's termination

Judge reverses firing of BWI Airport fire chief, citing racial discrimination

A "racially inhospitable environment" at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport's fire department led to the unlawful termination of a black deputy fire chief earlier this year, a state judge has ruled — and his firing must now be reversed.

Gregory Lawrence was the first African-American hired as deputy fire chief at the airport, and the first to serve as acting chief. He was fired in March.

"[It] was more likely than not that the only reason for termination of the Employee was his race," administrative law judge Nancy E. Paige wrote in her 54-page decision, which was released Thursday by Lawrence and his attorney. "I conclude that the Employee would not have been terminated if he were not African-American."

Civil rights advocates hailed the ruling. Some said complaints of discrimination have gone unaddressed in the department and others like it around the state for years.

"Shame on them," said William L. Robinson, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, whose arguments before the Supreme Court in the 1970s helped shape the legal foundation for employment discrimination claims under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

"At this point in the game, all major agencies or municipalities should be well versed at least in the basics" of employment law, Robinson said. "It's frankly inexcusable that a substantial administrative body like the airport would not be aware of what's going on in its workforce and not have policies to prevent a hostile environment."

"The reality is [Lawrence] is one of many victims," said Carl Snowden, coordinator of the Caucus of African-American Leaders, which backed the fire chief in his fight.

Between 1972 and December 2013, only six black firefighters in the department received promotions, Paige found. Between 1990 and December 2013, none was promoted to the level of captain or higher — one declined an offer — although nearly 50 had applied.

Paige ordered the agency to reinstate Lawrence with full pay and benefits dating back to March 5, the day he was fired. He earned an annual salary of $93,516.

Lawrence's attorney said the judge's order should be a "wake-up call" for state officials from the Maryland Aviation Administration to the governor's office — who he said have done little to address claims of racial discrimination in the department.

"They've been found by a neutral judge to have racially discriminated against Chief Lawrence," attorney Alan Legum said. "If that doesn't get your attention, I don't know what will."

Others said the decision should also serve notice to fire departments and other agencies across the state that racial discrimination will not be tolerated. Fire departments in the region — including in Baltimore and Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties — have faced similar claims in recent years, often following the selection of all-white or mostly white recruit classes.

Lawrence was fired shortly after he joined others in criticizing the selection of an all-white recruit class at BWI. He appealed his termination to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

In five days of hearings, Paige wrote, she found evidence of disparate treatment of Lawrence by other members of management and by some of his subordinates.

Paige cited what she called a "remarkable email" from March 2011 from then-Chief Woodrow Cullum to Wayne Pennell, the chief operating officer of the Maryland Aviation Administration. Cullum wrote about a complaint from Lawrence about what he felt was racially motivated insubordination from members of the department.

"Everyone in my chain of command is aware of these issues," Cullum wrote. "However," he continued, "nothing has really been addressed or corrective action taken to change this culture."

In another incident, Paige wrote, Lawrence's fire boots were filled with water. Cullum asked Maryland Transportation Authority Police to investigate. He wrote that he was "concerned that this was not a random act and that [Lawrence] may have been the victim of a hate crime."

Paige said the state's assertion that Lawrence was terminated for using a department vehicle inappropriately was "clearly a pretext for firing him for some other reason."

Paige also dismissed an argument by the state that "incivility was rampant" within the department and insubordination was directed toward white and black officers alike.

She found the firing violated both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act.

Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration, said officials were reviewing Paige's "lengthy decision" to "determine options and further actions, including a possible appeal."

"The airport continues to reject these assertions. The airport is confounded with the [judge's] conclusion," Dean said. "BWI Marshall Airport remains absolutely committed to fair and equal employment opportunities. We are devoted to a fully inclusive workforce throughout the organization."

Dean declined to comment on Paige's specific findings, as did a spokesman for the Maryland attorney general's office, which represented the aviation administration in the case.

Paige gave the state 30 days to file an appeal. An appeal would not stay the order, Legum said, unless attorneys for the state requested and won such a stay from a Circuit Court judge.

Lawrence served in the Marine Corps for more than two-and-a-half decades before entering fire service in Hawaii and California.

His first legal battle with the BWI department begin in 2003. He was passed over for a job and filed a discrimination lawsuit.

That suit was settled in 2006 with a denial of liability by the department, but also a $100,000 settlement and a job for Lawrence. He started in 2007.

Lawrence said Thursday that he wants to get back to work and won't be deterred by lingering doubts about how he will be treated in the department.

"I look forward to returning to the duties I love to do, which is serve the public," he said. "I have always been willing to take on a challenge. I am not afraid. I was a Marine."

Paige ordered the department to reinstate Lawrence as deputy fire chief.

As acting chief, he was considered a candidate to take the position permanently. The job has since been filled.

Legum, a longtime civil rights attorney, said Lawrence's termination took him out of the running for the chief position. He called that a "lingering injustice," and said it is the subject of a separate, pending complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Paige did not address that complaint in her order, but did mention the open chief position and Lawrence's 2003 discrimination lawsuit as possible factors in his termination.

"Whether the decision was the result of ongoing resentment of the manner in which he came to the job, displeasure with having a person of his race in the high management position he had achieved, or to preclude the possibility of promotion," she wrote, "I conclude that [Lawrence] would not have been terminated if he were not African-American."

Lawrence, who received only positive employee evaluations during his time in the BWI department, has been supported by national black firefighter organizations and other local black firefighters, including from departments that have been investigated for racial discrimination claims.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League began working to improve minority recruitment in the Baltimore Fire Department at the request of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake in 2011, after years of complaints about racial discrimination and largely white recruit classes.

The Justice Department opened an investigation in 2012 into allegations of racial discrimination in hiring in Baltimore County's police and fire departments, where minority representation was low. And earlier this year, Anne Arundel County fire and police leaders introduced new recruitment plans after receiving heavy criticism for a mostly white recruit class.

Legum said he planned to give state officials and attorneys until next week to read through the order and discuss it. He said they have not yet discussed how Lawrence will be reinstated.

Legum and Lawrence were flanked during their Thursday announcement of the judge's findings by civil rights leaders and other black firefighters.

Snowden called on Governor-elect Larry Hogan to address what he said is systemic racism in the BWI Fire Department.

He called Lawrence's termination an "outrageous" action — especially at an airport named after civil rights pioneer Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore native who argued the landmark antidiscrimination case Brown v. Board of Education before the Supreme Court, and later joined the body as the first African-American associate justice.

krector@baltsun.com

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