Connecticut Battalion Chief Files Gender Discrimination Suit

A battalion chief with the East Haven Fire Department has filed suit claiming she was passed over for promotion to assistant chief on account of her gender. Eileen Parlato filed suit in US District Court for the District of Connecticut naming the Town of East Haven as the defendant.

Chief Parlato, a 30 year veteran and a battalion chief for the past 16 years, claims that department manipulated the promotional process to deny her the promotion. As explained in the complaint:

  • In or about September 2021, the EHFD had an opening for the position of Assistant Chief. The only two internal candidates who applied for the position were Ms. Parlato and a newly minted BC (the “Male Candidate”).
  • The Male Candidate worked as a civilian dispatcher; became a firefighter in 2005 [the year Chief Parlato was promoted to battalion chief]; held that position until he was promoted to BC in October 2020; and held that position until, 11 months later, he was chosen over Ms. Parlato to become AC.
  • Before his promotion to BC, the Male Candidate had no supervisory experience at the EHFD. In a span of less than 12 months, he skyrocketed from supervising no one to supervising 11 people as BC to supervising more than 50 as AC.
  • Ms. Parlato helped train the Male Candidate on how to perform his role as BC and had been supervising employees for approximately 16 years.
  • Not only was Ms. Parlato well-versed in the duties and responsibilities of the BC position, but she had also been performing key portions of the AC’s job for years. Indeed, the prior AC (Chuck Licata) and Ms. Parlato collaborated frequently, and Mr. Licata sought out Ms. Parlato to partner with him on significant projects.
  • When Mr. Licata [the prior assistant chief] broached the topic of his own retirement, he discussed with Ms. Parlato his belief that she would be his natural successor. Ms. Parlato had already informed Chief Marcarelli that she was interested in becoming the AC when Mr. Licata stepped down. On August 31, 2021, following Mr. Licata’s formal announcement of his impending retirement, the EHFD posted for the AC position.
  • Thereafter, Chief Marcarelli himself drafted a new job description for the AC role. In that description, he drew a game-changing distinction between the supervisory experience required of an internal candidate versus an external one. External candidates were required to have “15 years of experience with a similarly sized or larger department, which includes ten (10) years of progressively responsible supervisory experience” and must currently hold the “rank of Battalion Chief or above” (emphasis added). Internal candidates, in contrast, needed to have only “ten years with the EHFD” – regardless of whether they had any supervisory experience at all during those years – as long as they “currently [held] the rank of Captain above.”
  • Had the same 10 years of supervisory experience been required of internal candidates, the Male Candidate – who had only 11 months of such experience – would not have been eligible to serve as the AC.
  • Historically, applicants for the AC had taken a written exam, an objective measure of a candidate’s qualifications for the position. Now, though, for the first time ever, the Chief announced that candidates for this AC position would submit only to an oral examination.
  • After the oral examination, Ms. Parlato received a letter informing her that she would not proceed to the next round in the interview process. The letter provided three purported reasons for this decision that were apparently of equal weight: “This decision was based on overall accomplishments as delineated in the resume, fire department leadership experience and performance in the interview process.”
  • The Male Candidate and the other BC were stunned to learn that the EHFD had not moved Ms. Parlato on to the next level of interviews and even more shocked to learn the three purported reasons why.
  • One of Ms. Parlato’s fellow BCs observed that the reason given regarding her fire department leadership experience as purportedly lacking was particularly absurd. The Male Candidate agreed and later stated that he had been “ready for that question” during his oral exam.
  • The Male Candidate then revealed that the examining board had asked him: “You are up against someone with 15 years more experience than you. What makes you the better applicant?” Upon information and belief, that question was not among the approved list of exam questions that the interviewers were supposed to ask.
  • In order to fairly evaluate candidates in an oral exam, it is important that each interviewee be asked the same questions and that the interviewers do not assist the interviewees in answering any of the questions.
  • Ms. Parlato’s sex was a motivating factor in the Town of East Haven and East Haven Fire Department’s failure to promote her to the position of Assistant Fire Chief.
  • The Town of East Haven and East Haven Fire Department’s conduct in this regard was willful and/or in reckless disregard to Ms. Parlato’s right to be free from discrimination.

Chief Parlato retired June 30, 2022, attributing that decision to her non-promotion. Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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