Anchorage firefighter’s discrimination lawsuit set for trial

An Anchorage firefighter is suing over what he said is a pattern of racial and age discrimination at the Anchorage Fire Department.

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The lawsuit has been brewing for the past two years but a judge’s recent decision against the Municipality of Anchorage means it is headed to trial this summer.

Jeff Graham is a Korean-American in his 50s and he’s worked for the fire department for more than 20 years as a mechanic and firefighter.

In his lawsuit, Graham alleged that hidden racism at the fire department is causing it to violate, not only state law, but also the municipality’s own rules regarding testing and promotion.

Graham said he was passed over for promotion while younger, less-qualified candidates moved up the ranks at the fire department.

“And it’s really white guys here, to put too fine a point on it,” Graham’s lawyer, Jeff Jarvi, said in a courtroom recording. “Our public resources need to be allocated in some fair and objective manner, and just not an old boys club of who you like best and who’s most popular among the guys.”

According to the court documents, Graham said he always received good performance reviews and was trying to get promoted to engineer. At one point, Graham said in the court papers, he passed the engineer exam and was even working as an acting engineer.

Later, Graham said he was informed that he was no longer eligible to be an engineer. He said he found out that the fire department had changed the test and made it more subjective.

Graham subsequently failed the test several times and claims that it was unfair because the test and the testers were biased against him.

Graham said in the court papers that he was asked in the peer review portion of one test about a false rumor that he had been buying TVs, renting them out and then returning the TVs to the store to get his money back.

Graham described the rumor as false and racist.

That is only one of Graham’s complaints.

In regards to that and the rest of Graham’s claims in the lawsuit, the Municipality of Anchorage denies any wrongdoing.

“He would have to prove objectively that he was treated differently than other employees and there’s no evidence of that,” Assistant Municipal Attorney Monica Elkinton said in the same courtroom recording.

“Everybody who is promoted to engineer has to pass the same test, they are asked the same questions,” Elkinton said. “He opens the door to the questions that can be asked. So if he doesn’t want to talk about whether he believes he has a reputation for honesty, then he doesn’t have to talk about that. But that’s the way peer review works.”

Elkinton was also arguing a specific point, which was only part of the municipality’s effort to get the lawsuit dismissed.

But Judge Eric Aarseth did not toss the suit and now both sides are gearing up for a trial by jury currently set for July.

So while the jury is yet to be picked — and there are still many more issues on which the lawyers remain at odds — there is one thing they can agree on: Both sides declined to comment for this story.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

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