New Jersey Firefighter Accuses Deputy Chief Of COVID-Related Race Discrimination

An Asian-American firefighter is suing his fire department and a deputy chief for discrimination over comments the chief made related to COVID19. Firefighter Timothy Burkhard filed suit against the City of Plainfield, New Jersey and Deputy Fire Chief Pietro Martino.

The suit was originally filed July 23, 2020 in Union County Superior Court, but it was dismissed on August 14, 2020 for reasons that are unclear. Burkhard’s attorney filed a motion on August 25, 2020 that resulted in the case being successfully reinstated on September 11, 2020. The reasons for the legal maneuvering are not clear from the court record, and copies of the complaint and decisions likewise are not available.

According to MyCentralJersey.com, Burkhard, a 2-year veteran, claims that in March Chief Martino “mockingly” asked him if he had recently traveled to Wuhan, China “while he squinted his eyes so that they narrowed in a racist caricature of Asian facial features and left his mouth open.” This incident occurred during a training session on COVID19, and the remark was made in the presence of at least 19 firefighters, including five lieutenants and a battalion chief.

The complaint alleges a violation of New Jersey’s discrimination law. MyCentralJersey quoted Burkhard’s lawyer, Sebastian Ionno, as saying in a statement:

  • “It is even more appalling that the City of Plainfield was provided timely notice of this incident and failed to remediate or repudiate this repulsive racist and divisive conduct.”
  • “Thankfully, New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination does not change with the political winds and always prohibits discrimination even when a person’s race or ethnicity may not be popular due to external world events.”

More on the story.

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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