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'There might be some merit,' employment law professor says of DOJ's investigation of KCFD

KCFD lawsuit and DOJ Investigation
Posted at 4:31 PM, Aug 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-24 18:34:07-04

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A Black Kansas City firefighter is claiming employment discrimination and retaliation in his lawsuit against the fire department.

It comes at the same time the city of Kansas City, Missouri, confirmed the United States Department of Justice is investigating the Kansas City Fire Department.

Stephen Seals claims he’s experienced discrimination, retaliation, and hostility during his time at KCFD. The Black battalion chief has worked there for nearly 30 years.

In the 16-page lawsuit, Seals says he was passed over for a promotion for someone “significantly younger” and “less-qualified.”

Seals told his deputy chief why he believed he wasn’t chosen citing his involvement in diversity, equity and inclusion task forces, making complaints of discrimination and his previous charges of discrimination and lawsuit.

It’s not the first time he’s sued KCFD. In 2019, Seals alleged white colleagues were chosen over him for promotions. City council members later approved a $250,000 settlement in 2021.

Seals also revealed in his latest lawsuit the DOJ contacted him last January. He said the DOJ told him they’re investigating the work environment of Black firefighters, including instances of race discrimination and the department’s hiring, promotional and assignment processes.

The KSHB 41 I-Team sought out an expert voice to help explain the process. Saint Louis University Law Professor Marcia McCormick specializes in employment law.

“The fact of the investigation is serious, but the fact that it’s the Department of Justice is not the serious part,” McCormick said.

McCormick said the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or EEOC enforces anti-discrimination law. The DOJ is the investigating agency.

"Because they have fewer resources, you know they have to spread it across the country, that suggests there might be some merit and it might not just be this one plaintiff that’s experiencing these things,” McCormick said.

While the DOJ would not comment on the investigation, city spokesperson Sherae Honeycutt said “the City of Kansas City is cooperating fully in their investigation.”

In February of this year, a report detailed concerns about the workplace culture at KCFD. It highlighted issues of harassment, discrimination, and unsafe driving.

The KCFD Culture Assessment Report listed several recommendations and potential actions the city could take including encouraging and rewarding safety, accountability, diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The I-Team circled back with the city on Thursday. They said their statement of cooperating with the investigation stands.

The I-Team also reached out to Stephen Seals and his attorneys, but never heard back.