Deputy fire chief gets $90K settlement from city after he was skipped over for top job

An insurance company for the city of Burlington has reached an agreement with the city’s deputy fire chief over an employment discrimination claim that he filed last year after he was passed over for promotion to the fire chief’s post.

The Travelers Indemnity Company has agreed to pay $90,000 to John Matthew Lawrence in order to settle his case against the city, which was laid out in an EEOC complaint as well as a formal grievance that he lodged on September 10, 2020.

According to a settlement agreement that Lawrence signed on September 16 of this year, the deputy fire chief has received the proffered sum in return for his promise to drop any and all claims “related to or growing out of the city’s 2020 Fire Chief promotion process.”

A career firefighter who initially served 9½ years with Burlington’s fire department between 1997 and 2007, Lawrence eventually returned to the city’s employ in January of 2018 to take over as the fire department’s new deputy chief.

Although his rank at the department put him second only to the city’s then-fire chief Jay Smith, Lawrence wasn’t automatically elevated to the chief’s post upon Smith’s retirement.

Burlington’s city manager instead tapped Jay Mebane, a former fire fighter who had left the department a few years earlier to become Burlington’s inspections director.

Burlington assistant fire chief Matt Lawrence began the grievance process last September, two weeks after city manager Hardin Watkins announced the appointment of the city’s building inspector, Jay Mebane, as fire chief.
Burlington fire chief Jay Mebane was announced as Burlington’s new chief on August 28, 2020, effective September 1, 2020.

The particulars of Lawrence’s complaint aren’t spelled out in the settlement agreement, which instead refers to the aforementioned EEOC case and the formal grievance that the deputy fire chief filed in 2020. The Alamance News has nevertheless learned that Lawrence’s claim included charges of racial discrimination; Lawrence, who is white, apparently alleged that he lost out on the chief’s job to Mebane because Mebane is black.

The Alamance News ultimately obtained a copy of the settlement agreement from the city’s legal department under North Carolina’s Public Record Law. This law obligates state and local authorities to release legal settlements with current and former employees even in cases when they were brokered by third parties – such as the Travelers Indemnity Company in Lawrence’s case.

According to the text of this settlement, Lawrence will remain in Burlington’s employ “without any retaliation or other repercussions on account of his claims.” The settlement asserts that he will be “reviewed fairly and without retribution” as a candidate for the fire chief’s post – if the position becomes vacant again while Lawrence is still on the city’s payroll.

The agreement goes on to guarantee Lawrence “a favorable or neutral recommendation” – up to the date of the settlement – should he seek employment outside the city. It moreover, promises that he’ll have “the opportunity to provide a written statement” on his case to Burlington’s city council “to be read in closed session.”

The text of Lawrence’s settlement makes it abundantly clear that none of its provisions is meant to imply an admission of liability by any of the parties involved in the case. The text stresses that the two sides brokered the agreement in lieu of a protracted legal battle over Lawrence’s claims.

“This agreement,” it adds, “is executed and delivered as a compromise in order to avoid the expense of litigation, to terminate a dispute and controversy between the parties hereto, and finally to resolve the claims by and between the parties.”

According to Burlington’s personnel office, Lawrence is currently employed as the city’s deputy fire chief with an annual salary of $115,131.64.

In a separate case in a neighboring city, Mebane city officials won’t release the terms of a settlement with former city planner Montreena Hadley who is now running for city council: