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City denies bias claims by former firefighter

January 22, 2019

The city has denied claims in a federal lawsuit alleging a former high-ranking Fort Wayne firefighter was discriminated against.

Elbert Starks, who is black, argues in the lawsuit that “racially hostile comments” from co-workers while he was a Fort Wayne Fire Department captain created a work environment so toxic that he accepted a demotion to escape it. He later resigned from the department after filing two complaints about the alleged discrimination.

The case filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne should be dismissed because the allegations are beyond the scope of a complaint Starks filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a lawyer for the city wrote in court documents. City officials “exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any discriminatory or harassing behavior,” the documents state.

“Starks has not been subjected to an adverse employment action,” a five-page response to the lawsuit filed Jan. 11 says. “Starks has not been subjected to disadvantaged terms or conditions of employment.”

Starks was hired as a firefighter in 1997 and was promoted to captain in 2009. He later served as an assistant chief in charge of human relations.

The lawsuit, which also alleges the department failed to accommodate an unspecified disability, was filed Dec. 13 in state court but was transferred to U.S. District Court because it claims violations of federal civil rights laws. It seeks damages including back pay, front pay, bonuses, retirement compensation and medical costs.

The response filed by attorney Gary D. Johnson asks a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

No hearings are scheduled in the case, court records show.

mleblanc@jg.net

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