Connecticut Fire Department Sued For Sex, Race and Ethnicity Discrimination

A male firefighter with the Danbury, Connecticut Fire Department is suing the city, Mayor Bernard Meehan, a deputy chief, the present fire chief, the past fire chief and his union alleging sex discrimination/harassment, race discrimination and ethnicity discrimination.

Reynoldo Rodriguez, who describes himself as being “of Puerto Rican-American Hispanic descent”, filed the suit earlier this year naming Deputy Chief Bernard Meehan, Fire Chief TJ Wiedl, former Fire Chief Geoffrey Herald, and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 801 in an 81 page – 236 paragraph – 12 count complaint.

The allegations of discrimination begin back when Rodriguez was first hired in 1987, and continue pretty much throughout his career. Rodrigues alleges he was both tormented and ostracized on account of his ethnicity as well as a perception that he was homosexual. Quoting from the complaint:

  • The DFD and the Union have a long history of treating non-white firefighters, women firefighters, and firefighters who do not adhere to a “macho” gender stereotype less well than the white “macho” firefighters
  • This long-held practice of exclusion by the DFD has taken the form of awarding preference points for membership in volunteer fire departments that have historically excluded all women and minorities because of their “private association” status, daily ostracism, name calling, lack of critical support during fires, and relentless demeaning and disrespectful conduct.
  • The Union, although obligated to provide representation to all members, has consistently refused to provide service to its women and minority members, even though those minority members are required to be members and to pay dues in the exact same manner and amount as every other Union member.
  • In July of 1987, when Plaintiff was hired by the City and was required to join the Union, he became the only firefighter of Hispanic background in the DFD. Plaintiff was accused by co-workers of using the affirmative action laws to force the City to hire him, implying that Hispanics in general and he specifically were unqualified and could not pass the test on their own merit. For example, Lieutenant Stephen Omasta asked Plaintiff, “Why couldn’t they have hired a white guy?”
  • The ostracism took many forms. Firefighters would refuse to sit at the same table with either Plaintiff or the only African American member of the DFD, Steve Johnson while they ate. Johnson and plaintiff were regularly forced to sit at a table alone to eat.
  • The racial animus was at times more overt. As an example, one day, Assistant Chief Vacovetz walked into the day room and announced to the crew he had a joke for Plaintiff. He said, “A baby duck and a baby skunk are lost in the woods. One says to the other, ‘Let’s figure out who we are.’ The skunk says to the duck, ‘You are yellow have a duck bill and quack, so you must be a duck.’ The baby duck says to the skunk, ‘You’re half white and half black and you stink like shit, so you must be a Puerto Rican.’” When Plaintiff objected to the joke, Chief Vacovetz and other members of the DFD said, “Can’t you take a joke?”
  • The ostracism directed at Plaintiff was encouraged by the officers of the DFD who also disparaged him. Firefighters are regularly recognized for their heroism during fires or medical emergencies. During his first year, Plaintiff made two single rescues within a month of each other, but the DFD chose not to recognize those rescues for two years.
  • In May of 1997, Plaintiff responded to an emergency call with “C-Group” and left a cup of tea he was drinking on the table.
  • Upon his return, he drank the entire cup of tea in one gulp. While he was on the call, someone had filled his cup with Dawn soap. Plaintiff was hospitalized from May 18, 1997 to May 27, 1997 as a result. The attack was not investigated nor was anyone disciplined for poisoning Plaintiff.
  • On March 19, 1998, Plaintiff was appointed to the position of Emergency Medical Services Coordinator after receiving the highest score on the promotional examination.
  • On March 23, 1998, Mark Omasta, who had also taken the promotional examination but had scored lower than Plaintiff, told the current Fire Chief, T.J. Wiedl, that Plaintiff should never have gotten the job, even though he had scored higher than Omasta. T.J. Wiedl then told the on-duty crew in the day room that Plaintiff had only received the appointment as EMS Coordinator because he was a minority and had threatened to sue the DFD. That allegation was completely false.
  • As EMS Coordinator, Plaintiff was and is responsible for maintaining the EMS training records, providing training to DFD members, and assuring that every firefighter and EMT’s certifications were current. To do so, he scheduled training classes every Wednesday, which was met with resistance by the firefighters and their supervisors.
  • Having been allowed to denigrate and endanger Plaintiff for over a decade, the firefighters and their supervisors knew that they could ignore, resist, and humiliate Plaintiff with impunity. Chiefs would schedule other activities during scheduled class time; firefighters who decided to attend would grandstand, call out responses and be generally disruptive and disrespectful so as to undermine Plaintiff’s teaching and authority.
  • Plaintiff complained in writing to the Fire Chief that he was being harassed due to his ethnic background by numerous acts of insubordination and hate speech, but there was no response and the harassment continued.
  • Eventually, Plaintiff complained directly to the Director of Human Resources for the City of Danbury, which angered the Chief and other firefighters, but again there was no response.
  • Even in the face of the regular unaddressed insubordination and ridicule, Plaintiff continued to teach and take classes that would expand his knowledge and better serve the DFD. Other fire and police departments requested that he train their members. Plaintiff continued to develop programs to involve the community in the DFD, including the Fire of Life Program, Community CPR, blood pressure screenings for the elderly, mass CPR training classes for the greater Danbury area, and Automatic External Defibrillators in the schools including training the staff.
  • Even though Plaintiff’s programs enhanced the DFD’s reputation, he was regularly denigrated by his co-workers and supervisors.
  • Deputy Chief Meehan, a lieutenant at the time, referred to Plaintiff as “nothing more than a CPR chimp” while Plaintiff ran the Community CPR program from 1999 to 2005. Similarly, in 2006, Phil Curran, then Acting Fire Chief, repeatedly introduced Plaintiff as “the Department’s token Puerto Rican Jew.”
  • From 2009 through 2014, Deputy Chief Meehan called Plaintiff “half-a-day Rey”, implying that Plaintiff, as a Hispanic, was lazy and/or dishonest by stealing time from the City. The repetition of the pejorative nickname so damaged Plaintiff’s reputation that Fire Chief Herald began paging Plaintiff every day at 4:55 p.m. to ensure that he was still in the office. Other officers adopted Meehan’s pejorative nickname and began calling Plaintiff, “half-a-day Rey.” Even though Plaintiff complained to Fire Chief Herald, about the obvious racial animus, nothing was ever done.
  • Each time Plaintiff presented a grievance to the E-Board seeking the Union’s representation, the Union refused to provide him that representation. None of the grievances that Plaintiff presented to the Union were ever pursued by the Union on his behalf.
  • On December 1, 2005, Plaintiff discovered that the City of Danbury’s Code of Ordinances Sec. 8-2. (e) states that the Ambulance and Rescue division has one Lieutenant and additional men as assigned to the division by the Chief.
  • Plaintiff provided the Ordinance to Chief Siecienski and requested that he have the rank called for in the Ordinance. Chief Siecienski refused
  • Plaintiff went to the Union to represent him in acquiring the rank and recognition called for in the Ordinance. He showed the E-Board the Danbury Ordinance Sec. 8-2. described above. Robert Forbes, a Union E-Board member and Officer, told him that the Ordinance was “out of date” and that Plaintiff should “be quiet or you could lose captain’s pay.”
  • Because he was the subject of ongoing harassment and discrimination in the DFD, Plaintiff’s performance of his duties was regularly met with contempt and resistance by line members of the DFD. By seeking the rank provided for in the Ordinance, Plaintiff hoped to reduce the misconduct of, at least, the members with lower ranks.
  • Plaintiff and other minority members of the DFD are disciplined more harshly than white members and for conduct that would not result in discipline for a white member.
  • In March of 2013, Plaintiff was sitting in the day room when Lieutenant Karl Drentwet referred to him as a “Puerto Rican cocksucker” in the presence of then Deputy Chief Wiedl. Plaintiff turned to then Deputy Chief Wiedl and said, “Did you hear what he called me?” Then Deputy Chief Wiedl said, “I didn’t hear a thing,” laughed, and walked away.
  • Prior to February 6, 2014, Lieutenant Lounsbury had made a disparaging comment about Plaintiff’s competency and. Plaintiff had sent an email to Lieutenant Lounsbury protesting. On February 6, 2014, then Deputy Chief Wiedl told Plaintiff that he did not approve of the email and told Plaintiff to “develop a thicker skin” to cope with the disparaging comments that are common in the Fire House.
  • On June 2, 2014, then Deputy Chief Wiedl ordered Plaintiff to meet him in his office.
  • When Plaintiff arrived, then Deputy Chief Wiedl informed him that he was being charged with dereliction of duty and abandoning his post at the Fire School on May 24, 2014. When Plaintiff returned with Union representative Chip Daly, then Deputy Chief Wiedl told Plaintiff, “Maybe you shouldn’t work here anymore.” On June 19, 2014, Fire Chief Herald issued Plaintiff a written warning and told him to attend counseling. A true and accurate copy of the warning is attached as Exhibit “V.”
  • After a series of visits, the counselor found Plaintiff was functioning on a professional level in his job.
  • Plaintiff was also harassed on the basis of his sex. Plaintiff was repeatedly called homophobic names, verbally abused, and physically assaulted by then Captain Meehan based on a perception that Plaintiff was homosexual and did not conform with male gender stereotypes.
  • Other firefighters also left signs on Plaintiff’s office door indicating that it was the women’s bathroom, or girls’ bathroom, or that Plaintiff was the secretary or custodian.
  • On one occasion in 2012 or 2013, members of the DFD put an inflatable sex doll with a carrot embedded in its “anus” in Plaintiff’s office. Plaintiff reported the offensive and sexual conduct to Chief Herald, who simply told Plaintiff to get rid of it.
  • Nothing was done to address the harassment.
  • On or about January 18, 2013, Plaintiff was physically assaulted by then Captain Meehan during a staff meeting. Present were Chief Herald, then Deputy Chief Wiedl, and Assistant Chiefs Steve Williams, Charlie Slagle, and Paul Omasta. Then Captain Meehan entered the room, approached Plaintiff and stroked Plaintiff’s nipple and then put his feet in Plaintiff’s lap.
  • Plaintiff told then Captain Meehan to get off of him. Plaintiff reported then Captain Meehan’s conduct to Chief Herald in writing and in person.
  • Even though Chief Herald was in the room and Plaintiff reported the incident immediately to him, nothing was done.
  • On or about January 8, 2014, Deputy Chief Meehan entered Plaintiff’s office where he was sitting behind his desk. He told Plaintiff that he needed “a man hug” and proceeded around the desk, preventing Plaintiff from leaving the office. When Plaintiff drew one of his legs up to prevent Deputy Chief Meehan from touching Plaintiff’s body, Deputy Chief Meehan rubbed his groin on Plaintiff’s leg and humped Plaintiff’s leg repeatedly. Plaintiff yelled for Deputy Chief Meehan to “get off of [him].”
  • Deputy Chief Meehan dismounted Plaintiff’s leg and left his office. Steve Rogers was in the office next to Plaintiff and overheard the incident.
  • Deputy Chief Meehan’s attack was reported to Chief Herald the same day. A true and accurate copy of Plaintiff’s report of that and another incident of Deputy Chief Meehan’s harassment is attached as Exhibit “Z.”
  • The Director of Human Resources and the Assistant Corporate Counsel investigated Plaintiff’s report [and] …. informed Plaintiff that there was no substantiation to his complaint.

 

The twelve counts are:

  • Count I – against the Mayor and the City – 42 U.S.C. §1983 Equal Protection Violation Based on Race and National Origin Discrimination
  • Count II – against the Mayor and the City – 42 U.S.C. §1983 Equal Protection Violation Based on Sex Discrimination
  • Count III – against Deputy Chief Meehan – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Equal Protection Violation Based on Sex Discrimination
  • Count IV – against Chief TJ Wiedl – 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Equal Protection Violation based on Sex Discrimination
  • Count V – against Former Chief Geoff Herald in his Individual Capacity; 42 U.S.C. § 1983
  • Equal Protection Violation Based on Sex Discrimination
  • Count VI – against the City – Title VII Violation Based on Sex
  • Count VII – against the City – State Law Sex Discrimination
  • Count VIII – against the City – Title VII Violation Based On Race/National Origin
  • Count IX – against the City – State Law Race/National Origin
  • Count X – against IAFF Local 801 – Title VII Violation Based on Race/National Origin
  • Count XI – against IAFF Local 801 – State Law Race/National Origin
  • Count XII – against the City and IAFF Local 801 for Breach of City Charter

Here is a copy of the complaint: Rodriguez v Danbury

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
x

Check Also

Chicago Investigating Firefighters Who Removed BLM Banner

A complaint on social media about a fire truck stopping and removing a Black Lives Matter banner has prompted an investigation by the Chicago Fire Department. The complaint was posted Saturday on Nextdoor by Dr. Adele Cobbs.

PG&E Suit Challenging Fire District Ordinance Dismissed

A lawsuit filed by Pacific Gas and Electric against the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District challenging the validity of fire safety ordinances has been dismissed. PG&E, who was forced into bankruptcy over liabilities associated with wildfires caused with its electrical wires, objected to Ordinance 35 as being beyond the authority of the district to enact.