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Black firefighter’s lawsuit survives challenge by Grasonville VFD

A former firefighter with the Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department can seek damages for racial discrimination in employment even though he was not an employee, a federal judge has ruled.

Oscar L. Price, who was the first black member of the department when he joined in 1983, filed a $1 million racial discrimination lawsuit in June. Lawyers for the department, in a motion to dismiss, argued federal law only protects “employees” against discrimination, and Price did not receive any monetary compensation for his work with the volunteer fire company.

But Judge Ellen L. Hollander denied the motion to dismiss based on the “line-of-duty” benefits available to Price in case of injury or death. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held it is a question of fact, not law, as to whether those benefits can transform a volunteer into an employee under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act, she said.

“I cannot say, as a matter of law, that Mr. Price was not an employee of the Department for purposes of Title VII,” Hollander wrote in December. “In my view, plaintiff has alleged facts, coupled with Maryland law, that are sufficient to state plausible claims under Title VII on the basis of his employment status.”

Price filed an amended complaint Friday to clarify his status as an employee, as ordered by Hollander. The amended complaint states Price is entitled to a variety of benefits under state and federal law and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission manual, including “tuition reimbursement for courses in fire service technology” and workers compensation.

“Most, if not all, of the enumerated volunteer benefits listed in the EEOC manual extract were awarded to Mr. Price by the Department,” the amended complaint states.

Price’s lawsuit alleges his white colleagues “embarrassed and mocked him by taking pictures of themselves in stereotypical, urban gang member style,” among other forms of harassment and retaliation. The harassment began in 2009, according to his lawsuit.

A lawyer for the department has called the lawsuit “frivolous and without merit” and noted the department has other black members as well as a black chief.

Price worked as an engineer and driver, according to the complaint. He also claimed the department hid his equipment after he filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in spring 2010.

The case is Price v. Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department, 1:14-cv-01989-ELH.