South Carolina

Judge: White Columbia fireman fired over Facebook posts has valid discrimination claim

A white Columbia firefighter who was fired for making controversial Facebook posts about a 2016 Black Lives Matter protest has a legitimate discrimination claim against the city, a federal magistrate judge has ruled.

The ruling — which noted that black firefighters who made similar Facebook comments were not fired — means a lawsuit by former Columbia Fire Department Captain James “Jimmy” Morris can go forward to Judge Terry Wooten in U.S. District Court.

But it wasn’t a total victory for Morris. Magistrate Kevin McDonald ruled that Morris’ free speech claim against Columbia was not valid.

“We’re certainly pleased with the magistrate judge’s recommendation on race discrimination,” said Morris’ lawyer, Paul Porter.

One goal of the lawsuit, Porter said, is to ensure all city employees are treated equally.

Al Nickles, a Columbia lawyer hired by the city, noted both sides have filed objections to parts of McDonald’s report and said “any comment would be premature.”

Morris’ firing stems from a July 10, 2016, protest by some 800 Black Lives Matter activists that spilled onto major Columbia streets and eventually closed down parts of Interstate 126 on the city’s western side. The activists were protesting a white secessionist State House rally about the Confederate flag. The protests concerned a spate of killings of black men around the nation by white police officers.

During the protest, Morris — who was on duty at the time — wrote a series of Facebook posts, some of which were strewn with grammatical errors, on his personal page.

“Idiots shutting down I-126. Better not be there when I get off work or there is gonna be some run over dumb asses,” he wrote.

He also posted, “If you attempt to shut down an interstate, highway, etc on my way home, you best hope I’m not one of the first vehicles in line ... because your ass WILL get run over. Period!”

The next day, in announcing Morris’ firing from his $53,722-a-year job, Columbia City Manager Teresa Wilson said Morris’ Facebook posts “demonstrated a lack of respect for the lives and safety of others.”

Wilson also said city employees are “ambassadors” who have to show to the public “civility, respect and professionalism.”

In his ruling, McDonald noted Morris’ lawyer, Porter, had presented evidence that showed while Morris was fired, the city did not fire two black firefighters who also made controversial posts on Facebook at the time of the Black Lives Matter protest.

McDonald noted that one black firefighter, Courtney Ramsaroop, posted: “Protesting is your right and you are free to do so, but when you protest in the street, that is impeding traffic. In that case, you’re just pretending to be a speed bump.”

Another black firefighter, Marcus Bostick, posted: “Here’s a thought. I wear a blue uniform. I’m black, but because I wear the uniform gangs are going to try and take me out? Hmmmm guess black lives don’t matter now do they. See it’s all b**** (expletive). But can’t tell idiots that now can you?”

Ramsaroop was not disciplined at all, and Bostick got an eight-hour suspension, McDonald wrote.

Morris, who had worked at the Columbia Fire Department for 17 years before being fired, now works at another Midlands fire department, Porter said.

In his initial lawsuit, filed in October 2017, Morris said he “wholeheartedly supports racial equality and the First Amendment rights of Black Lives Matter to protest and assemble” but he believed that “public roadways are not the proper forum for speech because of safety concerns.”

Morris seeks compensation for damages he says he has suffered because of the “unlawful race discrimination,” including economic losses and retirement benefits.

When she announced Morris’ firing, City Manager Wilson said the city’s employee handbook has clear rules regarding behavior and she has “zero tolerance” for employee actions that show disrespect to the public.

As a magistrate judge, McDonald made initial findings on the facts and law in the case. Judge Wooten will now decide what issues will be presented to a jury, should a trial be held.