Fourth Circuit Denies Alexandria Firefighter’s Race Discrimination Claim

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently denied an Alexandria, Virginia firefighter’s claim that he was denied a promotion to a paramedic position because he is Black.  Lyons v. City of Alexandria, No. 20-1656 (4th Cir. 6/1/22). The Court affirmed a grant of summary judgment to the City of Alexandria, finding that the Appellant had misunderstood the City’s promotion policy and failed to present any evidence of racial discrimination.

The case arose when Micheall Lyons, a firefighter with Alexandria Fire Department (“AFD”), initiated the process to promote to a paramedic. This process requires attendance at classes, hundreds of hours of on-the-job training, passage of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians exam, and completion of a one year Advanced Life Support Internship Program. 

Lyons had some difficulty completing the promotion requirements, and did not pass the written component of the National Registry examination until his sixth attempt. The passage of the exam made Lyons eligible to start the ALS Internship Program, but he did not receive a spot until five months later. Lyons alleged that this delay, which caused him to lose increased pay and rank, was motivated by his race.

In affirming the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, the Fourth Circuit agreed that Lyon’s assertion that AFD had failed to follow a “first come, first served” placement practice was based on is misunderstanding off the way the policy operated.  While Lyons believed that white applicants were allowed to “skip the line” and promote ahead of him, the Court found that the “first come, first served” policy was shift specific. Because Lyons voluntarily chose to transfer from the “B” shift to the “A” shift and received the first available internship on the “A” shift, he had been treated in accordance with AFD policy. 

The Lyons decision illustrates the fact that a plaintiff cannot create a “genuine issue of material fact” and defeat summary judgment based on their honest but mistaken understanding of a personnel policy. While it was true that  three White comparators Lyons relied upon as evidence of discriminatory animus were placed in internships  ahead of him despite qualifying later than he did, all three worked the “B” shift. Therefore, their promotions reinforced the testimony of AFD officials who said the policy was shift specific. 


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