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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, December 23, 2018 1:00 am

Ex-FWFD officer hits city with lawsuit

Alleges racial abuse caused him to resign

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

A decorated former Fort Wayne Fire Department assistant chief is suing the city, alleging racial discrimination led him to resign.

Elbert Starks, who is black, claims in a lawsuit filed Dec. 13 in Allen Superior Court that he “was subjected to racially hostile comments from co-workers which created a hostile work environment.” He reported the comments to officials including Fire Chief Eric Lahey and was transferred to another fire station, according to the lawsuit.

A fire captain at the time, Starks resigned his post and accepted a demotion to escape the alleged abuse, court documents state.

He resigned from the department Oct. 3 after filing two complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency that administers and enforces civil rights laws.

He filed a complaint with the city's Metropolitan Human Relations Commission Nov. 6, court documents state.

Neither the lawsuit nor a complaint attached to the lawsuit include details about the comments or who made them, but an EEOC filing from March 27 alleges fire department administrators took no action to address Starks' concerns.

“I was forced to resign my position as captain on Jan. 31, 2018, and accept a demotion to private because of the racial harassment and because the department refused to take corrective action and provide a work environment free of racial harassment,” Starks wrote in a charge of discrimination filed with the agency.

The lawsuit, which also alleges the department failed to accommodate an unspecified disability, was filed by attorney Loren K. Allison and seeks damages including back pay, front pay, bonuses, retirement compensation and medical costs.

Adam O'Connor, a fire department spokesman, said he could not comment on the lawsuit Saturday and referred questions to the city. City spokesman John Perlich said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Starks was hired as a firefighter in June 1997 and was promoted to captain in 2009, according to the lawsuit. He is listed in a 2014 fire department annual report as assistant chief in charge of human relations.

The hostile comments started last year, court documents allege.

He was awarded a medal of valor in 2002 for saving a 6-year-old girl from a burning house the year before. The girl otherwise would have died, officials said at the time.

In 2001, Starks won a bronze medal in wrestling at the World Police and Fire Games in Indianapolis.

An initial hearing on the case is scheduled Feb. 27.