NJ Firefighter Sues For Injury Related Termination

A New Jersey firefighter who suffered knee injuries in two successive fire academies causing him to spend much of his first year out of work or on light-duty, has filed suit following the fire department’s decision to terminate him.

Ibn Curry was terminated by the Belleville Fire Department on March 7, 2017 after the department’s doctor concluded that his knee injury was permanent and had reached maximum medical improvement. At the time he was seeking permission from department’s workers comp insurer for a second opinion.

The facts are complicated, so let’s look at them as explained in the complaint:

  • Plaintiff started his employment on September 10, 2015 and on September 14, 2015 began basic firefighter training.
  • During that training, plaintiff suffered injury to his left knee and was diagnosed with a fracture of the medial tibia plateau.
  • All treatment for that injury was provided through defendants’ workers’ compensation provider, Dr. Wayne Colizza.
  • On or about December 14, 2015, Dr. Colizza opined that plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement and discharged plaintiff from his care.
  • Defendants then placed plaintiff on unpaid administrative leave until April 4, 2016, the date of the next firefighter training.
  • On or about April 4, 2016, defendants again assigned plaintiff to go through firefighter training.
  • Unfortunately, during that training, plaintiff again suffered injury to his knee and was ultimately diagnosed with patellar tendon tear, medial collateral ligament tear, and lateral collateral ligament tear.
  • Plaintiff was, however, able to complete the firefighter and EMT trainings.
  • On or about August 10, 2016, Dr. Colizza performed surgery in an attempt to repair plaintiff’s knee.
  • Following the surgery, Dr. Colizza placed plaintiff out of work and returned plaintiff to work light duty on November 1, 2016.
  • As a result of that light duty, plaintiff was assigned dispatch and desk work.
  • On or about January 20, 2017, Dr. Colizza contacted plaintiff and advised that defendants had requested a Functional Capacity Evaluation (“FCE”).
  • Plaintiff submitted to the FCE on February 8, 2017 with a medical provider selected by and paid by defendants.
  • Plaintiff then returned to Dr. Colizza, who stated that he believed plaintiff had reached maximum medical improvement and again discharged plaintiff from his care.
  • On or about March 7, 2017, plaintiff contacted his workers’ compensation case worker, Leslie Haug, and advised that he wanted a second opinion, as he did not believe that the knee injury was permanent.
  • Haug stated that plaintiff would need to close out his workers’ compensation file and then speak to his employer about having it reopened to be seen by a second doctor.
  • Plaintiff then spoke to defendants’ Deputy Chief George Pedalino and advised that he wanted a second medical opinion.
  • Later that day, plaintiff was called into the office of defendants’ Chief, Robert Caruso.
  • Chief Caruso advised that plaintiff was being terminated as a result of the doctor’s conclusion that the injury was permanent.
  • Chief Caruso advised plaintiff to use his accrued vacation time and that the termination would be delayed until April 7, 2017.
  • On or about March 21, 2017, plaintiff treated with Dr. Andrew Levy, who did not consider plaintiff’s injury permanent, and scheduled plaintiff for surgery on April 10, 2017.
  • Regardless, on April 7, 2017, defendants terminated plaintiff’s employment.
  • J.S.A.40A:14-19.1(b) provides “A firefighter who has been injured in the performance of the firefighters duties shall not be discharged from employment as a result of a determination, based upon a medical examination by a physician designated by the employer of the firefighter, that the firefighter is physically incapacitated due to the injuries for the performance of the firefighter’s usual duties or any other available duties in the firefighting unit which the employer is willing to sign assign to the firefighter.”
  • Terminating plaintiff in violation of that statute constituted a deprivation of property without due process.

The suit alleges state law disability discrimination, a due process violation under the New Jersey Civil Rights Act, and equitable relief based of the fire department’s violation of state law.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Curry v Belleville

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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