First, I think this woman's claim is absoultely crazy but the story is important because I believe this is an example of what we can expect to see on a regular basis as folks look for more places to play lawsuit lottery.
Lawsuit says fires treated differently
By Neil Probst
A Montgomery woman believes a recent court decision will clear the way for a trial in the suit she filed against the city that alleges the Fire Department employed discriminatory procedures in fighting a blaze that destroyed her home in 1999 because she is black.
Venus Longmire is seeking a minimum of $290,000 and creation of a review board to investigate the city's handling of past fires. She said Friday that she is optimistic there will be no more delays in the longstanding case that she blames on a series of city legal filings intended to block her complaint.
City officials strongly deny Longmire's contention that firefighters delayed efforts to bring the flames under control at her 101 N. Haardt Drive home based on a dual standard for black and white homeowners.
"I was at the fire, and her allegations are not only unfounded but they're ludicrous," Fire Chief John McKee said.
But two black firefighters submitted testimony in the most recent procedural wrangle that support Longmire's contention.
One, retired firefighter Clarence Provitt, testified that "it is common knowledge that fires are fought differently on the west side (black) of Montgomery than on the east side (white), causing more damage and injury for blacks."
That testimony came in a hearing on the city's request for a summary judgment order that would have dismissed the case due to lack of merit.
In denying the city's request on Sept. 30, U.S. District Court Judge Harold Albritton wrote:
"The court concludes that there are genuine issues of material fact regarding whether (former District Chief ) J.T. Raines made statements designed to thwart the firefighting at the Longmire residence because of their race.
"Further, there are genuine issues of fact about whether the city condoned or had a policy of allowing its firefighters to fight fires differently based on the race of the property owners."
The court has not yet released any further information about the status of the case.
The Advertiser made repeated attempts to determine whether a trial date has been scheduled but received no clarification from either district clerks or Albritton's law clerk.
Still, Longmire views the court's latest ruling as a victory for getting her day in court.
"You really have to show quite a bit of evidence to move forward. We have done that. We have met that standard," she said. "What I'm concerned about is that something very heinous and racist has been allowed to exist in the Fire Department in the way they fight fires."
"I think it was (an) abused process on part of the attorneys of the city," she said of the time lapse in moving the case towards trial. City attorneys have declined comment in the case because the lawsuit is pending.
Longmire said she, her mother, Estelle Longmire, and her son, Melvin Robinson III, had to file four motions to compel the release of information they requested, and that at least four times, the city requested hearings in attempts to block access to information.
Longmire is representing herself in the case and said she has spent $60,000-$70,000 of her own money.
"It's really been horrendous. It's been very taxing," she said.
Mayor Bobby Bright, who is an attorney, downplayed the summary judgment denial and insisted that Longmire's claim that fires are fought differently based on race is "totally, absolutely meritless," though he conceded he wasn't aware of the Longmire complaint until contacted by the Advertiser.
He said a summary judgment is denied as long as a plaintiff can present even a minimum of evidence.
Raines, whom Longmire accuses of ordering firefighters to halt attempts to control the blaze at her home when he learned she was black, was paraphrased in Albritton's summary judgment denial as saying he "hotly contests that he gave any order or made any comment designed to stop the firefighters from fighting the fire."
According to Longmire's complaint, after the firefighters received instructions, they "stopped preparing the hoses, paused, dropped the hoses and slowly walked away without any attempt to put out the fire." It was not until a younger group of firefighters arrived that efforts to quell the blaze resumed, she alleges.
Despite Longmire's belief, the city's fire chief maintains there are no dual standards for fighting house fires.
"We fight every fire in every dwelling the same. We have SOP's (standards of procedure) we follow. ... All fires are fought the same," McKee said.
But in his testimony, Provitt, the retired firefighter, said there were two standards.
"For example, it is a standard custom upon arriving at a fire that there are designated manpower that will bring with them an ax, ladder, and a salvage cover from the truck to the dwelling, yet this is not the custom on the west side," he said.
Two former firefighters doubt Longmire's allegations.
Anthony Perkins said he led firefighters into blazes throughout town for 11 years, and that all fires were fought in the same manner without discrimination toward black homeowners. He worked in the department for 20 years before retiring as a captain in 1997.
"Every fire I went to, we always had axes there, we always had salvage covers, we always went inside," Perkins said. "Maybe somebody else saw that (discrimination), but I didn't."
Pete Wethington echoed Perkins' sentiments. Wethington worked out of at least six different stations before he retired as a lieutenant in 1990 after 20 years of service.
"I can tell you this, that in all of my years in the Fire Department, it made absolutely no difference what side of town, what part of town it (a fire) was (in)," he said