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This Bad Boss Pitted His Staff Against His Only Black Firefighter

Vernon Creswell was shaking as he made a pot of coffee in the kitchen of his new firehouse.

The emergency responder had just met Greg Mowad, a white battalion chief, and gotten a taste of what he would face as the lone African American in the fire department of Montebello, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.

“Hey bud,” said Mr. Mowad, who was relaxing in front of Fox News. “I know you’ll agree with me on this one. There is good blacks and there is bad blacks, and bad blacks are ni**ers.”

As Mr. Creswell later recalled in a deposition, his new superior officer criticized local Black fire chiefs and concluded: “All those Compton ni**ers are cut from the same cloth.” Mr. Creswell had just moved from the nearby Compton fire department, as Mr. Mowad knew.

Greg Mowad is our new “Bad Boss of the Month.”

After enduring several years of tension, Mr. Creswell sued the City of Montebello; a state jury awarded the experienced firefighter-paramedic more than $935,000 in damages for racial harassment and retaliation. In February 2016 the trial judge awarded him a further $1.5 million in legal fees.

Mr. Mowad may have been Mr. Creswell’s boldest antagonist in Montebello, but he was not alone. On Mr. Creswell’s very first day on the job, for instance, battalion chief Rick Lynsky told Mr. Creswell he had opposed his hiring and said, “You’re not going to fit in here — you’re an outsider,” according to testimony.

Other firefighters told Mr. Creswell that Mr. Mowad and fellow supervisors had referred to him as a “ni**er” and other epithets. Accounts vary, but witnesses also said that either Mr. Mowad or Mr. Lynsky — irritated at Mr. Creswell’s use of leave — advised other firefighters to take the Black man “out back” and “beat the crap out of him.”

When Mr. Creswell heard about some of these incidents, he testified in court, he “wanted to throw up.” He went to Montebello’s top fire chief to voice his dismay, but said the chief minimized the threats — his top brass was just “running their mouths,” he said.

Mr. Creswell filed a complaint with California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which ultimately led to the lawsuit and jury award. Separately, Montebello launched an investigation that would conclude that Mr. Mowad indeed had used racial slurs in the firehouse. According to a Montebello fire captain, Mr. Mowad was infuriated at this turn of events. “If I go down,” he threatened, “the whole department is going down.” Everyone in the department used the n-word, Mr. Mowad asserted.

Mr. Mowad had a history of seeing his workplace through a racial lens: Earlier in his career he had filed a discrimination case of his own — in nearby Anaheim, Calif., where he was passed over for a promotion that went to a Black man.

Meanwhile Mr. Creswell faced escalating harassment and retaliation, according to testimony. After applying for a position as acting fire captain, for instance, he was given a different test than three non-Black candidates — and told he had failed. He was denied a chance to take refresher courses in strike-team leadership, a prestigious duty he had previously earned. And even though he was a veteran firefighter who enjoyed being a mentor, he was denied the chance to train new firefighters.

Mr. Creswell also was warned not to wear department-approved gear when he exercised at the station: Mr. Lynsky said the standard beanie cap made him look like a “thug,” he said.

At trial, the jury awarded Mr. Creswell $185,150 in economic damages for unlawful retaliation — and $750,000 in non-economic damages for racial harassment. He remains a firefighter in Montebello.

And Mr. Mowad? According to court documents, he was placed on paid leave for more than a year, until shortly before the trial. Montebello was poised to fire him for his use of racial slurs, but eventually decided to allow him to “retire in lieu of termination” — with a pension and no disciplinary notes on his record.

There was no investigative finding about Mr. Lynsky, who also retired from the department.

» Mr. Creswell’s First Amended Complaint
» Jury’s Special Verdict

The Employment Law Group® law firm was not involved in Creswell v. City of Montebello. We select “Bad Boss” cases to illustrate the continuing relevance of employee protection laws for our newsletter’s audience, which includes attorneys and former TELG clients.

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