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Alexandria Fire Department prevails on race bias claim

Where a firefighter with the Alexandria Fire Department alleged he was passed over for a one-year paramedic internship because of his race, but the evidence showed the placement of interns was nondiscriminatory, judgment was awarded to the fire department.


Micheall Lyons alleges that his employer, the Alexandria Fire Department, intentionally discriminated against him because of his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While already serving as a firefighter, Lyons sought to become a paramedic. With the fire department’s help, he completed an educational process and eventually passed the two required examinations. This made him eligible for the required one-year paramedic internship.

But five months passed before the fire department promoted him to the internship. During that wait, an employee of the fire department told Lyons that firefighters were usually placed in the paramedic internship program on a “first come, first serve[d]” basis after becoming eligible.

After Lyons saw white colleagues on other fire department shifts receive internships before him, he believed that the fire department was violating its placement practice and delaying his promotion because he is Black. But the fire department explains that the first come, first served practice is shift-specific.

The district court found that Lyons failed to create a genuine question of material fact that the fire department does not have a shift-specific placement practice. Thus, the court granted summary judgment to the fire department on his discrimination claim.


A plaintiff proves a prima facie case of discrimination for a delay in promotion by proving that (1) he is a member of a protected group; (2) he applied for the position at issue; (3) he was qualified for the position and (4) the delay occurred under circumstances giving rise to an inference of unlawful discrimination. Lyons meets the first three requirements of the prima facie case.

To establish the fourth element of his prima facia case, an inference of unlawful discrimination, Lyons testified that both Captain Lisa Simba and Chief Byron Andrews told him that the fire department placed interns on a “first come, first serve[d]” basis. That statement is consistent with either a shift-specific practice or a practice of assigning without regard to shift. So Lyons tries to complete the circle by testifying that he understood those statements to mean that the intern placement practice was not shift- specific.

But Lyons’ alleged understanding of Simba’s statement is not enough to raise a material issue of fact given the fire department’s evidence. The fire department’s evidence supports its claim that it places interns with training officers on a first-come, first-served basis within each shift.

Lyons seeks to undermine this conclusion by pointing to assignments that he claims were not done on a first-come, first-served basis based on shift. Of the 22 applicants from September 2016 to May 2018, Lyons points to three white firefighters whose assignments he alleges deviated from a shift-specific placement practice. None hold up.

Finally, Lyons suggests that other rationales offered by the fire department for his five-month wait undermine its claim that it followed a shift-specific assignment practice. A plaintiff can establish pretext by “show[ing] that an employer’s proffered nondiscriminatory reasons for the [delayed promotion] are inconsistent over time.”

But a finding of pretext is appropriate “only where the other evidence of discrimination is sufficiently strong to ensure that the employer is held liable for unlawful discrimination and not merely for inconsistent statements.” That is not the case here.


Lyons v. City of Alexandria, Case No. 20-1656, May 31, 2022. 4th Cir. (Richardson), from EDVA at Alexandria (O’Grady). Stephen B. Pershing for Appellant. Ronda Brown Esaw for Appellee. Anna Marks Baldwin for Amicus Curiae. VLW 022-2-133. 18 pp.

VLW 022-2-133