Lawsuit Alleges Racist and Homophobic Verbal Abuse in Fire Department

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A New Canaan firefighter for more than one dozen years has suffered verbal abuse and harassment—including in the form of racist and homophobic remarks—from a superior in the department, while town officials have failed to address the ongoing problem, according to a lawsuit filed recently in Superior Court.

Since being promoted in 2007, a captain in the New Canaan Fire Department “has engaged in a continuing course of conduct and behavior toward the Plaintiff which was and is cruel, hostile, extreme, courageous and designed to harass, humiliate, intimidate, threats, discriminate and retaliate against the Plaintiff,” according to a complaint filed April 7 by Shelton-based attorney Michael Lynch of Lynch Law Group LLC. The aggrieved firefighter is a 41-year-old white male hired as a full-time firefighter in 2006, according to a detailed nine-count complaint. 

As a result of the abuse, he has sustained “psychological suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish and distress of mind, including fright, nervousness, depression, grief, anxiety, worry, mortification, shock, humiliation and indignity, all of which is or is likely to be permanent,” the lawsuit said.

Officials in the Fire Department and in Town Hall failed to properly train, supervise or discipline the captain, it said. The town is named as sole defendant, according to Connecticut Judicial Branch records. 

The complaint details several incidents involving the captain at the center of the lawsuit and the firefighter bringing it.

Incidents of racism

For example, according to the lawsuit, on a Thursday in December 2007, the captain wrote the words ‘I love [racial slur in the plural]’ in large letters on the passenger side of the firefighter’s vehicle while it was parked in a lot designated for the New Canaan Fire Department.

“Said words were visible to other Town and Fire Department employees and the general public,” the complaint said. “The Plaintiff thereafter drove his vehicle in the Town of New Canaan, not knowing the offensive words were written on his vehicle, before discovering them. He immediately, upon his return to the firehouse, spoke to [the captain] and advised him that the message he wrote on his vehicle stating ‘I love [racial slur in the plural]’ was extremely offensive to him,” to which the captain responded that it was “comical,” according to the complaint.

In addition, the lawsuit said, the captain “nicknamed the Plaintiff ‘Toby’ or ‘Kunta Kinte’ referring to the African slave from the movie Roots, and called him ‘Kunta Kinte’ or ‘Toby’ in the workplace on multiple occasions in the presence of others, and also told other employees about his nickname for the Plaintiff.”

In another incident, in June 2009, “the captain placed a sticker stating ‘I Love Black [expletive]’ on the Plaintiff’s locker located in the public locker room at Plaintiff’s workplace.” 

After the complainant reported the incident to the chief, the captain “verbally threatened to permanently end the Plaintiff’s employment” with the town “and also end his career as a firefighter” for reporting the conduct. At some point after that, while trying to respond to an emergency call, the plaintiff found pieces of trash, a brownie and foil lodged in the toe of his boots, delaying response to the incident, the complaint said.

The captain on other occasions sent the firefighter and others email that were “racially derogatory and offensive,” and texted him “offensive” material, it said.

Incidents of homophobia

In March 2010, the firefighter attended a St. Baldrick’s fundraiser hosted by the town, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit said: “While Plaintiff was standing at his locker located at the firehouse with his young minor son, [the captain] came up to the Plaintiff and his son and told the Plaintiff that ‘your son has a [expletive] sucking face just like his father’ and grabbed the Plaintiff’s minor son’s hand and said to the Plaintiff’s minor son: ‘I know you like penis.’ ”

The captain “repeatedly mocked and insulted the Plaintiff, calling the Plaintiff ‘stupid,’ ‘retarded,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘[expletive] sucker,’ ‘incompetent,’ and ‘the department clown.’ [The captain] has also told the Plaintiff ‘I hope your kids are [homophobic slur in the plural],’ ” the complaint said.

Other incidents 

According to the complaint, the firefighter was eligible for promotion to lieutenant from 2012 to 2018, but was repeatedly passed over, and the captain has disallowed him the opportunity to work overtime shifts, affecting his pay.

The captain also has “overemphasized the criticism he directs at the Plaintiff” during training in order to “demean and embarrass” him, and has even withheld “important and necessary information during emergency calls” that has created dangerous situations, the complaint said.

On or about Feb. 6, 2015, “[a]s the Plaintiff walked to his vehicle to head home, [the captain] immediately rushed out of the building and aggressively approached the Plaintiff,” and told him that was wrong to complain about the sticker in 2009, telling the Plaintiff he was “lazy incompetent and worthless,” the lawsuit said.

“Said incident made the Plaintiff feel threatened and intimidated, and it confirmed that [the captain’s] actions were intentional and done in retaliation for the Plaintiff’s proper complaint lodged against him many years prior to that time,” it said.

Believing that working under the captain would “compromise his safety as a firefighter,” the complainant “has been forced to take extreme measures” such as “using sick, vacation and personal time, all to his financial detriment.”

The lawsuit

In July 2018, the plaintiff filed a complaint with a state agency charged with preventing illegal discrimination in employment, among other areas. The Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities in December authorized the plaintiff to commence civil action in Superior Court.

The town faces counts including discrimination, retaliation, hostile work environment, negligence, breach of contract and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The complainant has sustained “psychological suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish and distress of mind, including fright, nervousness, depression, grief, anxiety, worry, mortification, shock, humiliation and indignity, all of which is or is likely to be permanent,” according to the lawsuit.

He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs and “any other relief that the court deems fair, just and equitable.”

A petition to have the case transferred to U.S. District Court, filed on behalf of the town by attorneys Claire Ryan and Jonathan Zellner of Stamford-based Ryan Ryan Deluca LLP, was granted in April.

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