The city of Las Vegas is poised to pay a former fire training officer $90,000 to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit stemming from 2013 recruit testing that gained attention due to cheating allegations.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in 2014, argued that exam proctor Michael D. Jackson was the “fall guy for the defendants’ inability to properly educate and certify a class of firefighter recruits.” Jackson, who is African American, alleged his race was a determining factor in his 2013 firing.
The settlement is on Wednesday’s City Council meeting agenda.
The suit named the city, Maureen Higgins-Teague and Steve Smith as defendants. In addition to racial discrimination, the suit alleges defamation and negligent training, supervision and retention.
The lawsuit claims that Higgins-Teague, a battalion chief who was Jackson’s boss, filed an application form late requesting certification for the winter testing of the winter 2013 recruit class, but proceeded with the exams because she was under “significant pressure” to make sure they graduated on time.
Smith was the city’s interim fire chief at the time of Jackson’s firing. The lawsuit contends that Smith and Higgins-Teague “conspired” to blame Jackson for the class’ failure to obtain their certifications.
The suit contends the cold temperature on the January 2013 testing day made it “impossible” to conduct one of the skills tests, and when Jackson told Higgins-Teague the conditions weren’t right and he needed to pull the recruits out of lunch early to allow time for written exams, she refused.
City attorneys argued that Jackson admitted mailing false passing scores to the state fire marshal, that no practical exam occurred and that he left the room during the test, allowing for the possibility of cheating.
“He was not fired because of racial discrimination, he was fired because he was trusted by LVFR to proctor exams and he failed to properly do his job,” the city contended in a motion. “His failure cost the city an estimated $700,000.”
After finding a pattern of similar answers on the written exam, the state fire marshal’s office investigated whether the 14 winter recruits properly completed their exams, and ultimately did not certify the class. Local news outlets, including the Review-Journal, reported on their failure to graduate and the cheating allegations.
The lawsuit contends that news reports at the time insinuated Jackson was responsible for the cheating, and that his bosses and the city didn’t give him “adequate notice” of the allegations against him, or give him a “meaningful opportunity to be heard.”
Jackson was terminated in May 2013, a few months short of his 20-year anniversary with the city, “adversely affecting his pension benefits,” the lawsuit states.
After conferring with Jackson on Tuesday, his attorney Jenny Foley declined to comment on the settlement.
The suit contends that Higgins-Teague sent the state fire marshal’s office a “deceptive email” claiming that the recruits completed all of their testing, but wasn’t disciplined.
Higgins-Teague retired in 2014 after roughly 25 years with the city, spokesman Jace Radke said.
U.S. District Judge Richard Boulware found that the lack of discipline for employees besides Jackson who were involved supported his discrimination argument, he wrote in his denial of the city’s motion for summary judgment.
Boulware cited an African American former battalion chief, Douglas Johnson, who testified that the fire department’s culture placed more scrutiny on black employees, according to court documents.
Jackson sought punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to punish and deter defendants from harming other similarly situated employees.”
Contact Jamie Munks at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0340. Follow @Journo_Jamie_ on Twitter.