NJ Chief Claims Termination Was Political Retaliation

A New Jersey fire chief whose position was eliminated and then refilled by his deputy chief has filed suit in US District Court alleging it was blatant political retaliation.

Westampton Township fire chief Jason Carty was fired after the position he held, Fire Chief/Director of Emergency Services, was eliminated on April 4, 2016, and his Deputy Chief was appointed to the newly created position of Fire Chief. Chief Carty had a five-year contract with Westampton Township, that was scheduled to run until December, 2019. He claims the township’s renaming of the position was nothing more than a thinly veiled political move.

The lawsuit was filed last month alleging a violation of Chief Carty’s First Amendment rights and a violation the New Jersey Constitution’s Free Speech provision. Chief Carty, who identifies himself in the complaint as a democrat, claims two newly elected republican township officials, Abraham Lopez and Maureen Smith-Hartman, were involved in the plot against him. The complaint also names Mayor C. Andre Daniels, although no specific allegations are made against him.

According to the complaint:

  • On or about April 4, 2016, an ordinance passed second reading purporting to eliminate Plaintiff’s position and create a new position of Fire Chief.
  • The only difference between Plaintiff’s job description and the position newly created by ordinance was the addition of a requirement which Plaintiff did not meet.
  • Following the passage of the ordinance, Plaintiff was immediately terminated from his position.
  • The Deputy Chief was then promoted to Fire Chief.
  • The elimination of the Fire Chief/Director of Emergency Services position was in retaliation for Plaintiff’s involvement in the campaign of former and current democratic Township committee members.
  • In fact, during the course of their campaigns Lopez and Hartman-Smith raised as a campaign issue Plaintiff’s role in directing two recent democratic campaigns, taking to social media to refer to Plaintiff’s appointment as “patronage.”
  • Jose F. Sosa, the campaign manager for Lopez and Hartman-Smith, sent a text to the Mayor of a neighboring town prior to the election indicating that he would be demanding Plaintiff’s resignation and claiming that, if Plaintiff refused to resign, he would be terminated when Lopez and Smith-Hartman won the election.
  • After their appointment to the Township Committee, Defendants opened a baseless internal affairs investigation into Plaintiff’s department. After it became clear there was no wrongdoing, the attorney conducting the investigation admitted that the investigation was a “fishing expedition.”
  • The First Amendment protects individuals from retaliation by government officials on the basis of political affiliation.
  • Plaintiff engaged in conduct protected by the First Amendment by supporting Democratic candidates whose policies he supported.
  • Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff for the exercise of his First Amendment rights by eliminating his position in violation of his contract.

The suit seeks reinstatement, damages, interest costs and attorneys fees, as well as punitive damages.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Carty v Westampton

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.
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