Mo. city pays $250K to battalion chief who claimed he was denied promotions due to race

Kansas City Battalion Chief Stephen Seals also says he was retaliated against for reporting previous discrimination


Allison Kite
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City will pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a high-ranking Black firefighter repeatedly passed over for promotions, the City Council decided Thursday.

Stephen Seals has been with the Kansas City Fire Department since 1995 and is now a battalion chief. He sued first in federal court in 2017, saying he was retaliated against for reporting on behalf of a Black cadet that a white classmate used the N-word. That lawsuit was dismissed.

Kansas City, Mo., will pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a battalion chief who said he was denied promotions due to race and age discrimination.
Kansas City, Mo., will pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a battalion chief who said he was denied promotions due to race and age discrimination. (Photo/City of Kansas City, Missouri)

He sued again in 2019, saying he was passed over for several promotions to deputy chief in favor of white candidates. In one case, according to the suit, then-Chief Gary Reese promoted a white firefighter to deputy chief without ever posting the position for applications.

The lawsuit claims Seals was discriminated against on the basis of race and age and retaliated against for reporting previous discrimination.

In a statement, Seals' attorney, Athena Dickson, said the issue had been "settled to the parties' mutual satisfaction."

"And he looks forward to working at the fire department to help make the department a better place to work," Dickson said.

On Thursday, City Council members voted for the settlement as part of several ordinances approved unanimously on its consent agenda, which are considered together and not debated individually.

Seals' is the first settlement to come before the council since The Star published a three-part investigative series documenting decades of systemic racism and sexism tolerated by KCFD leadership and City Hall.

The three-part series, published in December, found that Black firefighters have been harassed and put in danger, kept from sought-after stations through unwritten rules of segregation and passed over for promotions.

In a city where 30% of residents are Black, only 14% of the fire department is. Of the 48 highest-ranking firefighters, only three are Black.

Black firefighters are kept out of busy, inner-city fire stations, which are the most sought-after posts because firefighters respond to far more calls and gain experience that can help them get promoted. Some of those historically white stations haven't had a Black captain in at least a decade.

Female firefighters have reported severe sexual harassment, and after receiving a special sales tax for two decades, the fire department still hasn't outfitted all of its fire stations to accommodate women.

Since the series published, Chief Donna Lake and City Hall have committed to making changes in the department, including issuing a six-part plan and analyzing the way the department handles promotions.

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(c)2021 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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