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Former Topeka fire captain files federal discrimination suit against city, fire department

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A former Topeka fire captain has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Topeka and its fire department, claiming they discriminated against him based on his race and disability.

Brently Dorsey, who worked for the Topeka Fire Department from December 1994 through May 2022, filed the lawsuit Monday in the U.S. District Court of Kansas, accusing officials of race-based and disability-based discrimination, retaliation and violating the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Dorsey, a Black man with leukemia, said he noticed a pattern of white employees being treated better than Black employees and receiving promotions more often.

The Topeka Fire Department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

A city spokesperson said in a statement they were made aware of the lawsuit Tuesday, and declined comment on the pending litigation beyond saying, “The city takes claims of this nature very seriously and has full faith that the justice system will resolve this issue.”

In the lawsuit, Dorsey alleges that when he applied for a fire inspector role sometime between 2003 and 2005, he and a female applicant were the only candidates. Administrators reopened the job because “there weren’t enough applicants,” according to the suit.

In 2014, Dorsey said he applied for a fire marshal position, noting he already had supervisory experience. A white employee without supervisory experience in the fire department was promoted instead.

In August 2015, Dorsey was promoted to a captain role that he held until he left the department.

Health problems

Dorsey’s health problems began around April 2004, and significantly worsened in January 2018.

After notifying the department, Dorsey took sick leave from January to March 2018, and then worked light duty from April to September 2018.

In January 2018, he applied for two inspector positions and interviewed for them during his sick leave, but was denied the promotions. Two people with less seniority were hired for the roles instead, according to the lawsuit.

Dorsey was diagnosed with leukemia around August 2018. Around that time, he started taking intermittent leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act until he stopped working for the department in May 2022.

Due to issues related to his leukemia, Dorsey worked light duty from October 2021 through early June 2022. Since he was experiencing shortness of breath, which would have made it difficult to respond to fires, Dorsey applied for less physically demanding positions, but said he was denied.

Denied promotions

Dorsey had previously asked a supervisor if he could “ride the car,” a position in which non-probationary captains take on battalion chief positions in their absence. However, the interim operations chief called him a few days later and said Dorsey couldn’t “ride the car” because he hadn’t completed an incident safety officer course.

But in January or February 2022, Dorsey was riding with a white captain acting as battalion chief for the day who said the course wasn’t a requirement for him to “ride the car.”

In March 2022, Dorsey applied for several job openings, including fire marshal and chief of administration.

A white person who never held a captain position with the fire department was hired as the fire marshal, despite the job listing requiring at least two years of experience as a captain, the lawsuit said. Dorsey had six years of seniority over the person hired for the job and 17 more years of supervisory experience with the department.

The person hired for the chief of administration position was a white person who hadn’t applied for the job, according to the suit.

The lawsuit claims that former Kansas City, Kansas Fire Department Chief John Paul Jones, who had previously been accused of making racist comments, was on the interview board to make hiring decisions for the positions.

“Because Plaintiff was prevented from being promoted, because he was not accommodated, because his light duty was ending and because Plaintiff felt he could no longer do his current job due to his medical condition, he had no choice but to put in for his retirement effective May 20, 2022,” the lawsuit said.

Dorsey had planned to work for the department for at least 10 more years.

The lawsuit said at least one other African American employee has said they were unfairly disciplined and not promoted due to race.

The incidents cause Dorsey to experience emotional distress, pain and suffering, career damage, embarrassment, degradation, humiliation, increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping and loss of enjoyment in life, according to the lawsuit. He also lost out on past and future wages and benefits and had diminished career potential.