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Black Captain Sues Albany (NY) Fire Department for Rescinding Promotion

Albany Fire Department

Brendan J. Lyons

Times Union, Albany, N.Y.

(TNS)

ALBANY — Jeremy E. Clawson, a captain and the only minority member of the Albany Fire Department, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing city leaders of rescinding his promotion to the position of battalion chief early last year after he was treated for hypothermia by paramedics during an off-duty incident.

The decision to overturn the promotion of Clawson, who is Black, was made by fire Chief Joseph W. Gregory and Mayor Kathy Sheehan, who had both concluded that Clawson appeared intoxicated when paramedics responded to treat him at a local Dunkin Donuts after someone called 911 on a wintry morning.

Gregory and the mayor, in consultation with city attorneys, determined Clawson was drunk based on a review of body-worn camera footage from the police department, whose officers had also responded to the call. In an affidavit provided to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Gregory said the decision to rescind the promotion was “due to Mr. Clawson’s public display of intoxication and feculent indecency.”

But according to Clawson’s lawsuit, he has diabetes, which the department knows, and it made him more susceptible to the hypothermia that afflicted him on that “brutally cold” morning of Feb. 1, 2019. The cold, coupled with his diabetic condition, caused him to become disoriented and confused, the lawsuit states.

Clawson, 51, was transported to a hospital by ambulance that morning and treated for symptoms that included second-degree frostbite that resulted in him having blisters on all of his fingers. Because he was off-duty and not on city property, the lawsuit notes that fire officials allegedly violated federal health privacy regulations by accessing the medical details of the call ticket filed by paramedics.

Two days after the incident, when Clawson returned to duty, Gregory and three deputy chiefs questioned the captain about the 911 incident and informed him the promotion he had been offered on Jan. 18, 2019. The next day, the job of battalion chief was given to Cpt. David Kowalski, who is white.

“First, I find it unfortunate that we have come to this point,” Clawson said in a statement to the Times Union on Sunday. “I had hoped to resolve my differences with (the department) through a third-party mediation process that my lawyer and the city agreed to and which was scheduled to begin in April, but the city elected to cancel the day before. “

Clawson, whose attorney is Patrick Sorsby of Albany, said that he also believes the department violated the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)  by accessing private medical information from the off-duty incident. He said that years ago the department had allegedly engaged in similar conduct by accessing the sealed juvenile records of an African American recruit.

“While none of the current chiefs were involved in that episode, they were all serving line firefighters at the time and were undoubtedly aware of that case and the numerous errors committed by the senior staff,” Clawson said.

In July 2019, five months after the emergency services call, Clawson was offered a position as a deputy chief, which is a higher rank than battalion chief. But the lawsuit said that he rejected that offer because it is not a civil service position — like battalion chief — and would “expose (him) to possible immediate termination with little or no recourse as compared to his current civil service appointment.”

Clawson, according to the lawsuit, was the first member of his family to become a firefighter and as he climbed through the ranks of the department he was just the second African American firefighter to be promoted in the 153-year-history of the department.

Diabetes is a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act and, if Clawson was “publicly intoxicated” on the morning of the EMS call, alcoholism also is a disability. The lawsuit notes the department had allowed another person, who is white, to become a firefighter despite repeatedly failing drug-tests and apparently being afflicted with alcoholism and drug addiction.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.

Gregory referred comment to city attorneys, who could not be reached over the weekend. Sheehan declined to comment.

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