New Jersey Firefighter Alleges Race Discrimination and Retaliation

A New Jersey firefighter is suing his department, the fire chief and a firefighter alleging violations of the state’s Conscientious Employee Protection Act due to race discrimination and retaliation. Michael Warren filed suit against the Hamilton Township, Fire Chief Christopher Tozzi and Ray Krajcsovics

The suit was filed in Mercer County Superior Court. Warren claims that he was subjected to a racist slur in 2022, and when he complained, he was subjected to retaliation. Various New Jersey media outlets are reporting on the story due the allegations of racist social media posts. Quoting from the complaint

  • On February 27, 2022, Plaintiff was present in the Colonial Fire House during the course of the performance of his work duties.
  • A person affiliated with the Colonial Fire House, believed to be a volunteer or retired firefighter, looked in Plaintiff’s direction and stated, “Oh, we have a color boy here.”
  • Plaintiff was deeply offended by the blatantly racist statement, and he suffered emotional distress as result thereof.
  • Plaintiff reported the racial slur to a Captain in the Fire Department.
  • The matter was investigated by Defendant Hamilton and Plaintiff’s claims were substantiated.
  • In March 2023, Plaintiff responded to a call during which he observed and came into close contact with a deceased baby. The encounter was traumatic for Plaintiff. Soon after, Plaintiff went on leave for several weeks and then returned to his position.
  • In August 2023, Plaintiff was notified that he would be required to undergo a fit for duty exam, including a baseless and racist inquiry into whether he had any pending restraining orders or criminal charges.
  • Despite Defendant Hamilton’s claim that Plaintiff may have been unfit for duty, Defendant Hamilton did not place Plaintiff on administrative leave, but rather scrambled for approximately two months to justify its position that Plaintiff required a fit for duty exam and review of pending restraining orders and criminal charges.
  • During that time, Plaintiff waited weeks for a clear explanation as to why the fit for duty exam was ordered, and he lived with the stress, anxiety, frustration, and fear that it was ordered in retaliation for him complaining of racial discrimination at the Colonial Fire House.
  • At any time leading up to Plaintiff’s mandatory fit for duty exam, Defendant Hamilton could have reversed course and revoked its order that Plaintiff attend a fit for duty exam, but it refused to do so.
  • Plaintiff submitted to the fit for duty exam under protest, and Plaintiff was determined to be fit for duty.
  • On October 25, 2023, Plaintiff submitted a written complaint via email to Assistant Business Administrator Joy Kerlin, which stated, in part, “I was harassed and discriminated against by Hamilton Township Fire Department Fire Chief Chris Tozzi and the Hamilton Township Administration. Relation being Fire Chief and Administration as an employee.”
  •  In the detailed complaint, Plaintiff elaborated that he believed he was “[c]ontinuing to feel discriminated against, harassed, and a victim of retaliation (stemming back to the racist event at the Colonial Fire House)” and he highlighted the fact that only three of the 135 members of the Fire Department were black.
  • Plaintiff further articulated his beliefs and concerns of racist beliefs held by leadership in Defendant Hamilton’s administration by producing social media posts from Defendant Chief Tozzi’s social media pages, including the use on the “N” word.
  • Plaintiff also produced screenshots of Defendant Chief Tozzi’s Twitter account in which Defendant Chief Tozzi retweeted statements such as “Happy George Floyd Day, everyone” and “Race is a business-don’t you ever forget that.”
  • According to Defendant Hamilton’s alleged policies and procedures, Defendant Hamilton purports to maintain a confidential “Complaint Resolution Procedure”
  • In October 2023, Plaintiff was on temporary assignment at a firehouse other than the firehouse that was his primary work assignment.
  • Despite Defendant Hamilton’s alleged strict policy on holding complaints confidential, Defendant Hamilton and members of its administration, including Defendant Chief Tozzi, intentionally violated that policy in their handling of Plaintiff’s complaints and allowed the matter to quickly and dangerously spiral out of control.
  • Only two days later, on October 27, 2023, while on duty and in front of several colleagues, a coworker who is a close friend of Defendant Chief Tozzi – Defendant Krajcsovics – approached Plaintiff and verbally assaulted him for making the complaint.
  • Soon after the retaliatory act began, Plaintiff grabbed his phone to record the encounter. In the recording, Defendant Krajcsovics can be clearly heard berating Plaintiff by stating, “I don’t need to know the whole story. The guy’s best friend is fucking black, and he invited a black person into his fucking fire house. That’s really a racist!” Plaintiff responded, “Without knowing the whole story, that’s pretty bold of you,” to which Defendant Krajcsovics replied, “I know enough.”
  • At that moment, Plaintiff believed he was not safe working in other firehouses on temporary assignment, and he feared further verbal or physical acts of retaliation from other firefighters who were friends of Defendant Chief Tozzi.
  • As of that date, Plaintiff was scheduled to remain on temporary assignment until December 2023.
  • Out of fear for his safety and to avoid future harassment and retaliation at that firehouse, Plaintiff believed he had no choice but to request leave for the remainder of that temporary assignment.
  • The events at issue and the conduct of the Defendants forced Plaintiff to take an unpaid leave until he was scheduled to return to work at his primary assignment in December 2023, where he believed he would be able to work in a less hostile environment.
  • In the time since Plaintiff returned to work, a young white female firefighter complained of sex-based discrimination and harassment and – rightfully so – was granted paid leave for an extended period of time, which was not offered to Plaintiff.
  • The white female firefighter received preferential treatment because of her skin color, or, in the alternative, Plaintiff received a disparately inferior response due to his skin color. Even Defendant Krajcsovics treated the white female employee favorably, and he did not publicly berate her for complaining of unlawful treatment in the workplace.

While the complaint makes sufficient factual allegations of race discrimination and retaliation, it alleges two counts of violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1, et seq. Since the complaint does not make claims of discrimination under Title VII, it likely will remain in state court.

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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