Nashville fire department veteran staffer accuses chief of discrimination, retaliation

By: - September 6, 2022 3:35 pm
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A 30-year veteran of the Nashville Fire Department says in a newly-filed lawsuit she was forced to submit to drug testing and suspended for five days after she publicly accused the agency of age and sex discrimination.

Maggie Lawrence, 64, has filed a civil-rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nashville against her employers at the fire department and, by extension, Metro Nashville government leaders.

In it, Lawrence alleges Nashville Fire Chief William Swann installed a “much younger” and less experienced fire department captain — Lawrence Hutchison Jr. — as fire marshal, fired Fire Marshal Al Thomas after he complained that Lawrence was better qualified for the post and retaliated against Lawrence when she went public with her own complaints.

“Maggie Lawrence is a 64-year-old African-American woman who has been a dedicated employee of the Nashville Fire Department for over 30 years,” attorney Robert Bigelow wrote in the lawsuit. “In recognition of her outstanding efforts and consistent performance, her former boss, Al Thomas, was grooming her to succeed him as fire marshal.

“As Ms. Lawrence was preparing to become Nashville Fire Department’s first female fire marshal, (Swann) took drastic measures to ensure that the ‘good ole boys club’ stayed in place,” Bigelow continued.

Fire Department spokesman Joseph Pleasant said Tuesday the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Lawrence, who remains employed at the fire department, is asking in the lawsuit that a court declare the agency guilty of violating her civil rights and enjoin the agency from further acts of sex and age discrimination.

‘Ideal for the position’

Lawrence was hired at the fire department in 1992.

“For nearly 30 years, (she) did not incur any negative write-ups or performance reviews,” the lawsuit stated. “During this time, she also earned two associate degrees, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. She is an ordained minister, a volunteer disaster spiritual counselor for the American Red Cross and a chaplain for both the fire department and police department.”

According to the lawsuit, Lawrence compiled data to determine common causes of fires and used that information to create public safety programs.

If you go outside this department, start running that mouth, saying stuff that’s negative for what reason to, whatever, air your dirty laundry, it’s going to come back to me anyway

– Nashville Fire Chief William Swann, in secretly recorded meeting.

“Her supervisor described her as being ‘at the forefront for developing programs not only to monitor quality assurance but in researching lessons learned from other agencies for best practices,’” the lawsuit stated.

In October 2020, according to the lawsuit, Swan told Thomas, then fire marshal, he intended to replace Thomas with Hutchison, who “had only been an administrative captain for two years at the training academy and had not supervised anyone on a consistent basis.”

Thomas countered that Lawrence was “ideal for the position” and criticized Swann’s choice of Hutchison for the fire marshal post. Thomas was placed on leave a month later and fired a month after that. Thomas’ termination letter specifically mentioned Thomas’ upset over Hutchison’s appointment and accused Thomas of insubordination.

Lawrence says in her lawsuit that Swann named himself acting fire marshal and “put MS. Lawrence in control of the department’s daily operations.”

“She excelled at this task,” the lawsuit stated.

But in January 2021, Swann awarded Hutchison the fire marshal job and told Lawrence to train him, according to the litigation.

“Chief Swann told Ms. Lawrence in no uncertain terms that her age was the reason she did not get the promotion,” the lawsuit stated. “He explained to her, ‘It would be not smart of me to put someone in that position, at that level, and they (are) not going to be here but for a next few years’ … Chief Swann also issued several thinly-veiled threats to Ms. Lawrence.”

‘Start running that mouth’

The lawsuit alleges Swann reminded Lawrence that he had fired Thomas “because he was not on board” with the Hutchison promotion.

“Chief Swann also reminded her that if she complained about the situation, he ‘would hear about it’ and that was something she ‘didn’t want,’” the lawsuit stated.

Lawrence didn’t keep quiet, though. She filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and went public with her claims against Swann in an interview with a Nashville television station.

That newscast included snippets from a secretly-recorded meeting between Swann and Lawrence during which Swann warned Lawrence, “If you go outside this department, start running that mouth, saying stuff that’s negative for what reason to, whatever, air your dirty laundry, it’s going to come back to me anyway.”

Lawrence alleges in the lawsuit that Swann immediately began a retaliatory campaign against her. She was “written up for the first time in her 30-plus year career” for recording the meeting with Swann and put under a “performance improvement plan.”

Swann also ordered Lawrence suspended for five days. Upon her return from that suspension, the lawsuit stated, Lawrence was forced to submit to random drug and alcohol testing without cause.

She filed an updated claim with the EEOC in January to include the alleged acts of retaliation. The EEOC issued her a “right-to-sue” letter in June.

Nashville Fire Marshall Lawsuit by Anita Wadhwani on Scribd

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jamie Satterfield
Jamie Satterfield

Jamie Satterfield is an investigative journalist with more than 33 years of experience, specializing in legal affairs, policing, public corruption, environmental crime and civil rights violations. Her journalism has been honored as some of the best in the nation, earning recognition from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards, the Green Eyeshade Awards, the Tennessee Press Association, the Tennessee Managing Editors Association, the First Amendment Center and many other industry organizations. Her work has led to criminal charges against wrongdoers, changes in state law and citations in legal opinions and journals. She was married to the love of her life for 28 years and is now a widow and proud mother of two successful children of good character and work ethic.

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