INDIAN HARBOUR BEACH, Fla. – A former firefighter has won a $40,000 settlement in a lawsuit claiming racial discrimination and workplace retaliation against the Indian Harbour Beach Volunteer Fire Department and the city of Indian Harbour Beach, according to News 6′s news partner Florida Today.
David Tom of Palm Bay worked from April 2015 until June 2016 as the fire department's lone Asian firefighter. About two months after he started, he was sleeping in the fire station when a heavily intoxicated firefighter woke him, called him a profane racial epithet and flipped over his bed, U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton wrote in a Jan. 13 order.
Tom reported the incident to fire officials, but nothing improved, Dalton wrote. Rather, firefighters and officers warned Tom to “stop complaining” and to “keep his mouth shut” — because a key group of firefighters called “The A-Team” was actively looking for any reason to have him discharged or get him to quit.
Contrary to departmental policy, Tom was not assigned an officer to oversee his skills development for several months; had multiple issues getting correct equipment; received unwarranted low evaluations to ensure he would not pass certain tests; and was denied the opportunity to report a training-accident injury, Dalton wrote.
Tom sued the fire department and the city of Indian Harbour Beach in August in U.S. District Court in Orlando. After mediation, the parties entered into the $40,000 settlement agreement on Jan. 6, and the court case was dismissed.
Per terms of the settlement, neither the city nor the fire department admitted any liability arising from Tom’s claims, and they agreed to settle to avoid further legal expenses and costs. Both sides also agreed to refrain from comment on the lawsuit or their dispute.
In its September nine-page response to Tom's lawsuit, the fire department and city's lawyer wrote that Tom's amended complaint was "entirely insufficient' — and "plaintiff has not stated a single claim upon which relief can be granted."
City Manager Mark Ryan said the city's insurance carrier covered the $40,000 settlement.
Founded in 1965, the Indian Harbour Beach Volunteer Fire Department is a nonprofit corporation that has purchased fire trucks, thermal imagery cameras, automated external defibrillators and other equipment over the years.
Amid the lawsuit, a fire department operational review revealed the agency did not have liability insurance, Ryan told the Indian Harbour Beach City Council during its Jan. 14 meeting. What's more, the department's bylaws prohibit the use of donations or fundraising revenues for legal defense or liability insurance costs.
Last month, council members unanimously voted to reimburse the fire department up to $17,000 for its pending legal expenses.
"After 50 some-odd years that we've been in existence, we thought we were under the umbrella of the city. But, apparently, we weren't. That's a problem. And that didn’t sit too well with me. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,' " Fire Chief Todd Scaldo told council members during their Jan. 14 meeting.
Ryan said the city's insurance carrier has historically covered workers' compensation claims for firefighter injuries incurred during emergencies.
"The (fire department) has since obtained liability insurance for the corporation and their members for a myriad of issues including, but not limited to, an individual being hurt during a fundraising activity, a member misappropriating funds raised by the corporation, or members’ actions at a social gathering — including events with alcohol — that leads to injury or damages," Ryan said during the Jan. 14 meeting.
Council members also voted 4-1 to reimburse the fire department $2,555 to cover its liability insurance premium this year. Jim Nolan cast the no vote.
Scaldo said his agency is examining its bylaws and may renegotiate its contract with the city during the next budget year.