Friday, August 5, 2011
New Jersey - Tenafly Jewish Firefighter Claims Discrimination
A Tenafly firefighter on medical leave is suing the borough and several senior members of the fire and police departments for alleged racial discrimination and infringement of his civil rights.
David Kurtz, a volunteer firefighter since 2003, claims he's a victim of anti-Semitism. He also claims that he has faced constant harassment for seeking workers' compensation and for his criticisms of how borough leaders handled his requests, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court in New Jersey.
Deposition hearings have been scheduled for the next few weeks.
The suit names Richard Philpott, Tenafly's fire chief; Michael Johnston, former fire captain; William Connolly, president of the Firemen's Association; and Paul Cantwell, a recently retired firefighter and police lieutenant, as being responsible for the harassment that Kurtz experienced.
"My clients contend that at no time was he [Kurtz] a target of discrimination. He suffered an injury. He took some time off because of an injury. It caused some acrimony," said Thomas Hanrahan, the attorney representing the borough of Tenafly and the four men named in the suit.
The attorney for the Firemen's Association, which also was named in the suit, could not be reached for comment.
The original complaint also named Bergen Risk Managers Inc., which administers Tenafly's workers' compensation plans. But Kurtz recently reached an agreement with the insurance company, thus allowing him to proceed with reconstructive surgery for his shoulder injury, his attorney, Jonathan Nirenberg, said.
For years, Kurtz's plans for an operation were stalled because he and the insurance company could not agree on which doctor would treat him. During that time, Kurtz appealed to Tenafly's mayor and council members, as well as the Firemen's Association, for help in resolving the dispute.
"My client is a volunteer fireman who put himself in harm's way to help the town. He was just trying to get surgery done to repair a serious workplace injury," Nirenberg said.
Instead of support from borough leaders, the complaint stated that at a September 2008 meeting of the fire department, Kurtz was put on the spot by Philpott, Connolly, Cantwell and Johnston to answer invasive questions about his health.
Hanrahan said his clients were "dragged into this because of the dispute between the plaintiff and the insurance company, which we had no control over."
But Kurtz believes that actions to cut his monthly stipend by $300, and deny him senior employee status and associated benefits, were "intended to deprive Firefighter Kurtz of the benefits to which he is entitled," the suit stated. There are also disputes over whether Kurtz should receive service credit for his time spent on medical leave.
In addition to alleged retaliation related to his injury, Kurtz said in the suit that, on multiple occasions, he was the recipient of name-calling and threats related to his Jewish background.
Hanrahan called Kurtz's claims of discrimination "frivolous."
There are other Jews in the fire department, and based on interviews with them and other members of the organization, Hanrahan acknowledged that jokes were made about Jews, although comments about other racial groups also have been made in jest.
In addition to compensation for economic losses and coverage of his attorney's fees, Kurtz is seeking full seniority status, including all related benefits, with the Firemen's Association.