Anchorage firefighter wins nearly $780,000 in lawsuit against city

The municipality of Anchorage has paid one of its firefighters more than three-quarters of a million dollars after his successful lawsuit against the fire department.

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It’s the second large civil award this year the municipality has paid to a public safety employee, after two police officers won $2.7 million last summer in a lawsuit over racial discrimination.

While the firefighter’s lawsuit also started as a discrimination allegation, it ended with a jury verdict against the muni for breach of contract.

The firefigther, Jeff Graham, filed the lawsuit alleging he had been passed over for a promotion to be an engineer because of his race and age. Graham is Korean-American and in his 50s. He’s been a mechanic and firefighter with the Anchorage Fire Department for more than 20 years.

Through his attorney, Jeff Jarvi, Graham said he tested well on the first exams to become an engineer. But there is also a more subjective oral exam that Graham failed, and he said that was because the testers were biased against him.

“It’s really about the old boys club that is the Anchorage Fire Department,” Jarvi said. “It’s over 90 percent white men, and they can pick and choose who they want to pick and choose regardless of whether they’re the most qualified person for the job.”

The initial testing occurred in 2012, Graham filed the lawsuit in 2015 and it went to trial this past summer. Jarvi says he was not allowed to present some evidence of discrimination and that resulted in the case becoming largely about problems with how Graham was treated as an employee in general.

“We wish they’d been able to hear the whole case, for sure, because we think there are some broader and more important issues out there than just a simple breach of contract,” Jarvi said.

In October, the jury returned a verdict that said Graham had been treated unfairly, but they decided that it was not the result of racial discrimination. A judge awarded Graham $778,951.69 in November. Both sides are still haggling over attorneys’ fees, but municipal attorneys said they do not plan to appeal.

Jarvi said the lawsuit wasn’t just about money: Graham wanted to see changes in how the fire department tests and promotes its employees. And while the department uses a different testing format than in 2012, Jarvi said it doesn’t appear as though they’ve made significant changes.

Jodie Hettrick, deputy chief of operations at the fire department, said the jury did not offer specifics on what to change.

“It was a little frustrating for our side not to know exactly what they felt that we did wrong,” Hettrick said. “Because we want to treat our employees fairly and equally and make sure that they don’t feel the department is doing something wrong. We want to fix things. It’s just hard to do that when you don’t have all the details.”

Hettrick said the oral exams are very similar to a job interview for any employer, and the fire department uses a scoring system for each question.

Hettrick rejected Jarvi’s accusation that the testers are simply picking the people they like the most rather than those best prepared to do the job.

“We’re a professional organization, we are not a good old boys club,” Hettrick said. “And this is an emergency services environment. We have to have people who, the first day they show up to sit in that seat, that may be the worst fire we have in the history of the municipality, so we have to make sure that they are a hundred percent qualified to do that work.”

Hettrick also said the testers are required to divulge any conflicts of interest — including whether the person taking the test is a friend or family member — and they sometimes have to step aside.

Meantime, Graham continues to work at the fire department and Jarvi, his attorney, said Graham plans to stay there until retirement.

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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