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Former assistant fire chief sues city for discrimination due to race, disability

News-Sentinel - 12/22/2018

Dec. 22--Four years ago, Elbert Starks made news as a decorated veteran of the Fort Wayne Fire Department who had just been promoted to assistant chief of human relations.

Today, Starks is a former firefighter who has just filed a lawsuit charging the city with discrimination based on race and disability.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Allen Superior Court, Starks claims that beginning in 2017 he was "subjected to racially hostile comments from co-workers which created a hostile work environment," and that when he reported the comments to his union representative and Chief Eric Lahey, the department worked "to make Starks at fault . . . the chief's immediate remedy was to transfer Starks (the only black) from the station where the incidents occurred rather than discipline white co-workers who created the racially hostile environment."

Starks also claims the department violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation for a certified disability, namely post-traumatic stress disorder. Starks, 51, stated he was "involuntarily compelled to resign from the department" on Oct. 3 due to the ongoing discrimination and hostility.

Starks said the harassment began after he expressed concerns to Lahey over the treatment of former Chief Amy Biggs, who resigned under pressure in 2014. "At no time did (Lahey) offer any counseling or avenues to address my concerns," Starks wrote in a letter to Mayor Tom Henry in February. "I believe the chief had a conflict of interest being friends with" one of the people who allegedly made the comments.

Because of such "disparate treatment," Starks said he resigned as assistant chief in March 2015 and as captain in January of this year to work as a firefighter, serving in Station No. 5 in Waynedale. It was there, he said, where the racial comments escalated -- including praise of Adolf Hitler and criticism of the city's southeast side, where many minorities live.

According to the lawsuit, the International Association of Firefighters Local 124 also wrote a letter to Henry "on behalf of Starks and other similarly situated employees (black, Hispanic and Asian) who felt bullied and harassed." Local President Jeremy Bush would say only that the union "has communicated several potential issues to Mayor Henry in an effort to resolve the matters internally."

Starks, who joined the department in 1997 and was promoted to captain in 2009, is seeking unspecified pay and damages.

City spokesman John Perlich said he could not comment on pending litigation.

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(c)2018 The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)

Visit The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, Ind.) at www.news-sentinel.com

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