Latino Firefighter Sues FDNY Alleging Discrimination

A Latino firefighter with FDNY has filed suit alleging discrimination and retaliation on the basis of race, national origin, disability, and military service. Joseph Mendoza filed suit last week in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

According to the complaint, Mendoza was a Navy veteran who was hired by FDNY in 2015. He suffered years of abuse at the hands of colleagues while assigned to Engine 297/Ladder 130 in College Point. This included:

  • On or about November 7, 2015, upon first reporting with four other probationary firefighters to his firehouse, Engine 297/Ladder 130 in College Point, New York, firefighters there dumped a bucket of water followed by flour on Plaintiff from a window above the entrance. Several firefighters laughed while video recording the incident.
  • Upon information and belief, this behavior is a part of a hazing practice to which probationary firefighters are routinely subjected.
  • From the first day of his employment, Plaintiff was subjected to insults and demeaning comments from several firefighters due to his race, national origin, and disability, and uniformed service, particularly from his colleague, Levy Matthews.
  • In or around November of 2015, while working one of his first tours, Matthews approached Plaintiff in presence of other firefighters and said “Wow! They let the MS-13 join the FDNY now. Where the fuck they did they find you?”
  • From that day on, Matthews began calling Plaintiff “machete” because, according to him, Plaintiff looked like a recurring film character named Machete that is played by Danny Trejo, a Latino American actor. Matthews went so far as to leave a machete on top of Plaintiff’s locker.
  • When Plaintiff confronted Matthews about the machete that was left on his locker, Matthews responded, “I have to be careful with you. I know you’re fucking crazy because of your PTSD.”
  • Throughout his employment with Defendants, Plaintiff was told numerous times “No one cared” about his military career “in this house” and “Man up” about his “so-called” depression and PTSD.
  • About the time when United States President Donald J. Trump (“Trump”) was elected, Matthew yelled out “Yes! Finally the wall is going to be built! Sorry, Mendoza. Your family isn’t welcomed here no more.” At the time Plaintiff’s step-father was having legal issues with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Matthew was aware of this.
  • After Trump won the election, the firehouse, with mainly white men from Long Island began chanting “Build the wall.” Upon information and belief, these firefighters did this knowing Plaintiff had a father in ICE custody.
  • Throughout the remainder of 2015 and 2016, Matthews would refer to Plaintiff as “Mexican” and “Spic.”
  • Around the end of 2016, in order to transition from probationary status, Plaintiff was required not to exceed a certain weight. Because Plaintiff exceeded the target weight by five pounds, Plaintiff was sent by Defendants to another location to lose the weight.
  • When Plaintiff returned to his firehouse, the words “Fat Joe” were spelled out in doughnuts glued to his locker.
  • Firefighters at the firehouse also frequently watched pornographic films there, which would cause Plaintiff, who had been sexually assaulted while he served in the military, to have flashbacks of the sexual assault.

In 2018 Mendoza sought help for PTSD. Upon returning to duty he was ordered to submit to a drug test. On advice of the union’s attorney, he declined to take the test citing a lack of cause. He was suspended and thereafter assigned to light duty at headquarters. The fire department then sought his termination.

A hearing officer recommended a fifteen-day suspension, but according to the complaint FDNY opted to continue to pursue termination. The complaint does not indicate the status of that proceeding.

The complaint contains nine counts, including violations of federal, state and New York City discrimination laws, specifically alleging discrimination “on the basis of his race (Latino), national origin (Peruvian), disability (PTSD), and uniformed service.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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