Firefighter settles lawsuit with St. Paul for $528,432

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 7:44 PM

He was assigned to "light duty" at reduced pay after his eyesight began to deteriorate. He has agreed to take a new job with the city.

A St. Paul firefighter's federal legal claims of discrimination because of his limited eyesight merit a $528,432 payout, according to a settlement reached by attorneys for the city and plaintiff William Eldredge.

The amount would be the second-largest paid by the city in an employment lawsuit. The settlement won't be final until the City Council signs off Wednesday, but that approval is expected because the amount is within the limit previously set by the council.

As part of the legal settlement, Eldredge will become the department's first health and wellness coordinator and receive a slight bump in pay. He also agreed to retire in February 2013.

Generally, City Attorney Sara Grewing and council members tout a tough stance against settling lawsuits.

"Our whole goal in defending this lawsuit was protecting the public. With this settlement, he won't ever be fighting fires; he won't be on a rig," Grewing said, adding that the creation of a health and wellness coordinator also was among the city's goals.

In 1992, Eldredge was diagnosed with macular degeneration, later specifically identified as Stargardt's disease. He is unable to read small print without magnification, has driver's license restrictions and experiences distortion at the center of his vision, according to his federal lawsuit filed in August 2009.

Eldredge, 53, began work as a St. Paul firefighter and emergency medical technician in July 1994. His lawsuit said that despite his vision problems, he successfully performed his duties as a firefighter and EMT.

That changed after July 2004, when Eldredge had an eye exam during a routine medical screening. His vision was 20/200 in one eye and 20/100 in the other. Assistant Chief Anthony Carter immediately told Eldredge he was fired, but rescinded the order after Eldredge asked for a Veteran's Preference Hearing and his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

A month later, Eldredge was reassigned to "light duty" that caused a "substantial" reduction in pay, overtime and retirement benefits, the complaint said. The new job also was a "visually strenuous" audio-visual position in the training and development center of the department.

For the following few years, Eldredge fought his reassignments with complaints in state and local venues with varying success. The city terminated his employment for the fourth time in February 2009. Two months later, in April 2009, the state Department of Human Rights determined the city had engaged in "unlawful disability discrimination and retaliation," the complaint said. In July 2009, the city's Civil Service Commission also determined the city wasn't justified in terminating Eldredge, and he filed the lawsuit.

Eldredge hasn't battled fires in years. He earns about $65,000 annually.

In 1994, St. Paul agreed to pay 11 black firefighters and attorneys $690,000 to settle an employment discrimination and racial harassment lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the city approved a $270,000 police brutality settlement with a woman who required more than 300 stitches after she said a police officer threw her through a glass door and then falsely claimed she caused her own injuries by tripping.

Under Eldredge's settlement, $300,000 will go to lawyers' fees. Eldredge's attorneys at the Nichols Kaster firm in Minneapolis didn't return calls Friday.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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