A career firefighter is suing Montgomery County for racial and religious discrimination two years after he confronted a coworker for displaying a Confederate flag license plate.
Idris DeBruhl said in his lawsuit that the incident “culiminated” years of discrimination since Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service hired him in 2005. An African American and Muslim man, DeBruhl said he was subjected to frequent harassment from his colleagues, including racial and religious slurs.
The lawsuit asserts that DeBruhl also experienced retaliation from supervisors after he confronted another firefighter, Charles Lee, for displaying a Confederate flag license plate on his truck in 2017.
DeBruhl said he remained calm when he confronted Lee and three other coworkers about the license plate. But his colleagues, who filed for protective orders against DeBruhl after the incident, said at the time that he quickly became enraged and began cursing at them.
DeBruhl referenced the the number of guns he owned and threatened to “end this now,” they claimed. A Montgomery County District Court judge denied the protective orders, expressing skepticism that DeBruhl’s colleagues had accurately contextualized his comments.
In his lawsuit, DeBruhl said his colleagues filed “baseless” requests for protective orders and were never penalized by supervisors. It was an example of the racism and unfair treatment he had experienced at the department for years, he alleged.
“Since the beginning of his career with MCFRS,” the lawsuit reads, “Mr. DeBruhl was and is still currently subjected to inappropriate racial animus in the form of direct comments and disparate treatment by other firefighters and MCFRS supervisors/captains.”
The county is moving to dismiss the case. Barry Hudson, a spokesman for County Executive Marc Elrich, described the lawsuit as a “personnel matter” in an email on Sunday.
“Under State law the county cannot comment,” he wrote.
An independent investigator is “currently reviewing this matter,” Hudson added in a text message on Monday.
Jo Anna Schmidt, a Baltimore-based attorney representing the county in Montgomery County Circuit Court, also declined to provide more details on the case.
“It is my practice to not discuss pending litigation with the media,” she wrote in an email on Friday. “Suffice it to say, we … do intend to dispute the claims made.”
Vijay Mani, a Greenbelt-based attorney representing DeBruhl, also declined to comment further on the lawsuit.
In court filings, Debruhl said that discriminatory behavior began at the MCFRS Training Academy, where he was forced to watch a video in which a comedian repeated a racial slur more than 10 times.
His white colleagues frequently used the same slur at work, according to the lawsuit. Debruhl also alleged that coworker Mike Doyle repeatedly called him “boy” — “a racially derogatory name for slaves,” according to the lawsuit.
On another occasion, DeBruhl said he forgot his black socks — a part of his uniform — at home. A colleague told him to “just go without socks and that no one would notice,” according to the lawsuit.
“This comment was racially charged and focused on the fact that because Mr. DeBruhl is African American, his skin is the same black as his black socks,” it reads.
Several of DeBruhl’s colleagues also stated that they hated Muslims, according to the lawsuit. DeBruhl alleged that one of his coworkers called all employees at Station 8 in Gaithersburg terrorists “because they are Muslim.”
DeBruhl reported the behavior to the internal affairs department at MCFRS, but his colleagues “received no corrective or disciplinary action,” according to the case.
Michael Brady, the manager of the department’s Office of Investigation Programs, which oversees internal affairs investigations, did not respond to a request for information on whether MCFRS had looked into any complaints made by DeBruhl.
Fire Chief Scott Goldstein also did not respond to a request for comment.
While DeBruhl’s white colleagues received no disciplinary action for their behavior, he said in his lawsuit, supervisors labeled him a “troublemaker” for complaining and transferred him to 13 of the county’s 40 fire stations over 12 years.
The discrimination “culminated” on July 19, 2017, when DeBruhl said he noticed a Confederate flag license plate displayed on a truck parked in front of Station 6 in Bethesda.
“Seeing a Confederate flag, a historical symbol of slavery and racism, upset Mr. DeBruhl,” the lawsuit reads. DeBruhl said he went inside the station to confront Lee, the firefighter who owned the truck, and several other colleagues.
In the lawsuit, DeBruhl said he “addressed his coworkers and explained to them that the Confederate flag represents racism.” Several of his colleagues previously disagreed with that description in the days following the incident, when they filed for protective orders against DeBruhl.
Lee filed for a protective order in late July 2017. Firefighters Aleksandar Aleksandrov, James Smith and Jeff Ford, who DeBruhl also confronted, filed for protective orders a week later. All said they feared for their lives after the incident, in which DeBruhl appeared to threaten them.
DeBruhl said he told his colleagues they were cowards and called Lee a racist, but “remained calm and never got physical,” according to the lawsuit.
District Court Judge Zuberi Williams denied all four protective orders, but said DeBruhl’s actions were “unconscionable” and “way out of line.”
“I’m not happy with anyone’s behavior here,” Williams said in August 2017, Bethesda Beat reported at the time.
In his lawsuit, DeBruhl said his supervisors retaliated against him while his co-workers received no disciplinary action. MCFRS placed him on administrative leave after the incident and transferred him from Station 1 in Silver Spring, close to his home, to Station 21 in Rockville.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Goldstein notified DeBruhl that his wages would be docked 5% for 10 pay periods, according to the lawsuit. DeBruhl was given a disciplinary hearing four days later and issued a “Conduct Unbecoming” reprimand.
His colleagues were not subject to the same penalties and were offered administrative leave with pay, DeBruhl said.
DeBruhl, who still works for MCFRS, is suing the county for racial discrimination, religious discrimination, and unlawful retaliation for protected activity, according to the lawsuit, including reporting discrimination and objecting to discrimination in the workplace.
A hearing on the county’s motion to dismiss the case is scheduled for Jan. 30.