By Fletcher Word
Sojourner’s Truth Editor
For the second time in a month, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has ruled in favor of an African-American firefighter trainee who had been dismissed by the Toledo Fire Department. The Commission held that the dismissal was a result of unlawful discrimination.
On July 2, 2020, the Commission, in a Letter of Determination, stated that it had conducted an investigation into trainee Sierra Adebisi’s allegations against the City of Toledo and that, as a result of that investigation, found that “the information gathered does support a recommendation that Respondent [City of Toledo] unlawfully discriminated against Charging Party [Sierra Adebisi].
“With this probable cause [finding[, I feel I can finally exhale,” said Adebisi at a press conference last week during which she and her representative, Earl Murry, announced the findings of the Commission.
The language of the determination is almost exactly the same as the language of the Letter of Determination on June 4 in which the Commission found that the City of Toledo has also unlawfully discriminated against Randall Fuller, another African-American firefighter trainee, who was dismissed on May 3, 2019.
However, while the Commission determination is a critically important first step for the firefighter trainees seeking redress from the City for the unlawful dismissals, it is not the end of the road. The Commission now recommends mediation between the parties which would presumably lead to reinstatement and the payment of back wages for the charging parties.
However, as past examples have shown, mediation is not likely to happen, says Norman Abood, an attorney who represents both Fuller and Adebisi. The city, says Abood, has not traditionally been responsive.
Murry echoed that thought during his press conference. “We want to try to mediate and conciliate but the City has in the past not been responsive.”
“It’s like talking to the wall,” Abood says more pointedly of that lack of responsiveness and the City’s unwillingness to come to the table and mediate. Indeed, all the City needs to do in response to the Commission’s finding is ultimately reinstate Adebisi (and Fuller) and provide back pay.
When the time runs out for the mediation – which it will 10 days after the Commission’s findings, the firefighter’s option is to file suit, in which case she will be seeking more than just reinstatement. Compensation and punitive damages will be on the table in court, says Abood, who has already filed such a suit on Fuller’s behalf and will undoubtedly be doing on Adebisi’s behalf.
Adebisi, says Abood, would prefer to take the simpler route. “Her goal is not money,” says her attorney, “it’s reinstatement.”
Adebisi was admitted to the Fire Department’s training academy on February 27, 2019. On August 22, as she was ready to graduate the following day having passed “every test that [the department] had given me,” she recalled, she was informed via a letter from Chief Brian Byrd that “due to your overall unacceptable performance in the academy” she was being terminated immediately.
Attorney Abood has already filed on behalf of his client, Randall Fuller, a case that followed closely on the heels of another dismissed Toledo firefighter, Major Smith III, who was terminated on June 12, 2018, because of his inability to properly cut a hole in a roof “in a manner which assured he would fail and, at a minimum, required him to overcome artificial obstacles not required of any other trainee fireman,” wrote Murry in a guest column to The Truth last year.
The Smith case also could not be mediated because of the City’s obstinacy and is currently in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals after a summary dismissal by U.S. District Court Judge Jack Zouhary.
Court is not quite enough for Murry. Adebisi’s representative wants heads to roll.
“In view of the Ohio Governmental Agency Probable Cause rulings, now and previously rendered, it is clear the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department needs an enema of ranking officers who continue to perform illegal acts through their behavior and decisions,” said Murry during last week’s press conference. “Chief Byrd should resign or be replaced; other ranking officers known to practice racial and sexual discriminant should be replaced or terminated immediately … I am calling for the Mayor of Toledo to resign from office. He has failed to act when confronted with indisputable facts, has fostered discrimination against African Americans, levels of discrimination in the Fire Department which have not been seen since the 1970’s and 80’s.”
Abood is not fazed by the upcoming court battle, noting that his clients have an advantage now that the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has been so detailed in its research.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the investigation work the Civil Rights Commission has done in these cases,” he says.