Metro, Newton

Newton City Council Approves $1.56 Million in Settlements For Racial Discrimination Lawsuits

Newton City Council voted to approve settlements of $1.56 million and $65,000 reached on two separate lawsuits filed by members of the Newton Fire Department involving allegations of racial discrimination on Feb. 7, according to a statement from Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.

“We know we have work to do, urgent work, to create, implement and nurture a more equitable and inclusive workplace,” Fuller wrote in the statement.

Lee Gilliam filed a lawsuit against the City of Newton and the Newton Fire Department on June 17, 2021. In the complaint, Gilliam requested compensation for emotional distress caused by a hostile work environment due to racism.

According to the complaint, Gilliam, who is African American, began working for the fire department in 2004 and has since faced racist remarks.

“On several occasions, when a crime story was featured [on TV], firefighters would comment ‘[of] course, it’s a black guy,’” the complaint reads. “When Gilliam spoke up he was called ‘princess’ and would be told by the others ‘not to be so sensitive.’”

According to the complaint, in 2018, after working at the fire department for 14 years, Gilliam did not receive a promotion despite qualifying for the position. Instead, the position went to a less qualified Caucasian department member. 

A superior who clashed with Gilliam on multiple occasions with alleged racial motives played a significant role in Gilliam not receiving the appointment, according to the complaint. Gilliam confronted the superior for his alleged involvement, and further conflicts erupted between the two.

“Instead of privately discussing the matter with Gilliam, [the superior] confronted him in front of the entire firehouse,” the complaint reads. “[The superior] told Gilliam that he ‘lacked intelligence.’ As Gilliam walked by [the superior], he called him a ‘monkey’ under his breath and then went on to publicly belittle him further in front of his supervisors and colleagues.”

Gilliam not only experienced racist remarks from his Caucasian colleagues, according to the complaint. In a separate incident, a Black colleague made colorist remarks to him, alluding to Gilliam’s mixed African American and Caucasian heritage. 

The Newton Fire Department has since terminated the firefighter who made the remarks to Gilliam, according to that firefighter’s appeal for reinstallation.

Gilliam will receive the $1.56 million settlement from the city.

In her statement, Fuller wrote that Newton is working toward creating a more inclusive environment throughout the city’s municipal departments. 

Newton has hired its first director of community engagement and inclusion, she wrote, and plans to recruit “an experienced firm” to further institutionalize inclusiveness. Multiple municipal departments, including the Newton Fire Department, are also undergoing workplace discrimination training.

“Every member of the Newton Fire Department has been trained on harassment, discrimination, and respect in the workplace,” Fuller wrote. “This training in the Newton Fire Department will continue with more sessions and related programs.”

Gilliam and his attorney David Summer declined to comment.

Edgardo J. Melendez, another firefighter in the Newton Fire Department, will receive the $65,000 settlement for a separate lawsuit. 

Melendez could not be reached for comment.

Olivia Joung Contributed to Reporting.

Featured Image by Steven Mooney / Heights Editor

February 22, 2022