When Michael Stoecker was growing up in North Bergen, he had a dream to become a firefighter.
“I wanted to become a firefighter since I was a little kid,” said Stoecker, who still calls North Bergen home. “I wanted to make a career out of it. When the opportunity finally arose, I took the test and when I made it, it was a huge accomplishment.”
Stoecker says that it didn’t take long for his dream to take a bizarre turn toward disaster.
Stoecker claims that in the first days on the job, in early May of 2001, members of the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue made his life miserable by making inappropriate comments and gestures. He maintains that the first incident caused his career to spiral downward, eventually leading to his dismissal from the NHRFR in June of 2005.
However, Battalion Chief Charles Severino says that there is no truth to the claims. In fact, Stoecker was fired last year after he refused to submit to psychological counseling.
Severino says that the real troubles began when Stoecker claimed he had been injured and couldn’t work right away, and Severino wrote a report saying his injuries were bogus.
‘It blew my mind’
Stoecker, now 37, insists that Severino sexually harassed him on his first days on the job.
“I was in the kitchen of the firehouse on 68th Street in Guttenberg and I was reading the newspaper,” Stoecker recalled. “Severino looked at me and said, ‘How would you like to be my driver? And when I ask you to [perform oral sex], you do it.’ There was this silence. I couldn’t really talk. I was actually nauseous. It blew my mind.”
Stoecker also claims that Severino proceeded to grab firefighter Dean Mannion from behind and rubbed his genitals against Mannion’s buttocks.
These claims were all part of a multi-count lawsuit that Stoecker has filed against the NHRFR and Chief Brion McEldowney. The lawsuit was filed in July in the Hudson County Superior Court Civil Division and was prepared by Stoecker’s attorneys, Sciarra & Catrambone of Clifton.
Stoecker presented a copy of the lawsuit to the North Bergen Reporter last week and met with the Reporter to discuss the lawsuit.
But Severino, a 35-year veteran of firefighting, first in the North Bergen Fire department and later the NHRFR, maintains that the “incident didn’t take place at all.”
“There’s absolutely no truth to it whatsoever,” said Severino, a married father of two daughters. “He came to us with a reputation and I heard he had a lot of problems. So I treated him 100 percent professionally. The interesting thing about the claim is that I don’t have a driver. None of us [battalion chiefs] do. What’s really incredible is that he’s a massive man, a bodybuilder. If it happened, he was threatened by me?”
Severino said that if the incident did take place, there were other ways that Stoecker could have handled it.
“In my opinion, he should have said something to the person who said the comment he was offended by,” Severino said. “If he didn’t like it, if it was said, he could have said, ‘I don’t appreciate that kind of humor.’ Whatever the topic – politics, sports, sex – just say something and it’s over. Plus, I’m curious why he waited so long to come forward to say that this was said. It’s been five years.”
Got fired last year
Stoecker maintains that the initial incident was just the beginning of a series of events that led to his firing in 2005.
During his tumultuous four-year stint with the NHRFR, Stoecker suffered several injuries and claimed he was forced to go back to work while injured. He missed nearly a year of work after injuries he suffered in an automobile accident in August 2003.
He insisted that the initial incident with Severino caused him to be blackballed in the department, harassed, and tormented by other NHRFR members and forced to do work that was far beyond the call of duty.
Stoecker said that in response to the perceived harassment, he told Mannion and Captain James Stelman, who were apparently on the scene of the initial incident, that if Severino made any move on him, he would “break every bone in his body.”
“I think they were angered by that comment,” Stoecker said. “[Severino] was sitting across the table when he said what he did. If he was sitting next to me and made a move on me, I can’t tell you what I would have done. I didn’t expect to be subjected to anything like that.”
Stoecker insists that once Severino made the comment in question, his life as a firefighter “was tortuous.”
When asked why he didn’t take his complaint about Severino to a superior officer, he said he was “following the chain of command.”
“I made my comment to a captain [Stelman],” Stoecker said. “He was there at the time. From that point on, I was alienated and the subject of retaliation.”
Then, things got worse after Stoecker got injured, he says
Stoecker maintains that about a week after the initial incident, he injured his calf muscle while responding to a false alarm call.
“I stepped off the back of the truck and hurt myself,” Stoecker said. “I went back to the firehouse, told them I was hurt, and they took me to a care station in Secaucus, who then told me to go back to work. When I went back to the station, they made me do cadaver search exercises in full gear, knowing I was hurt.”
Stoecker said that he needed five weeks of rehabilitation to help heal the calf injury. When he came back to work, he was assigned to Severino’s battalion and asked for a transfer, which was denied.
“I now had to work with him all the time,” Stoecker said.
Left on his own
Battalion Chief Severino said that he believes the reason Stoecker is pursuing the lawsuit is because Severino wrote a report saying Stocker’s injury was bogus
. “People saw him step off the rig and was standing there as the call went on,” Severino said. “He didn’t hurt himself. Stelman put him through a regimen when they came back to the firehouse, but then Stoecker left on his own without permission. He wasn’t on duty for the next few days, but I was then sent to his house by the chief to see what was going on. I wrote a report that said it was a bogus injury and that’s where it all began.”
Stoecker’s woes continued in July of 2002 when he got into a heated argument with Captain Tom Tetta. The NHRFR then ordered Stoecker to undergo a mental evaluation as well as a blood test.
They believed that Stoecker, a known body builder, was under the influence of anabolic steroids.
“I refused to take the blood test and I was suspended,” Stoecker said. “The blood test was against the law. Why wasn’t a urine test good enough? I felt I was being discriminated against because of my build.”
After his month’s suspension, Stoecker returned to work and remained without incident until he suffered an asthma attack while on duty Aug. 15, 2003. Exactly nine days later, he was seriously injured in an automobile accident on the New Jersey Turnpike and missed work for the next 11 months.
When Stoecker was cleared for modified duty, he was asked to sign a waiver that would have included a psychological test. Stoecker refused to sign the waiver and was subsequently terminated.
The official reasons for Stoecker’s termination, which was handed down in 2004 but went into effect in June 2005, were insubordination and job abandonment.
“But I’m convinced that if [Severino] didn’t say that ridiculous, sick thing, I would still have a job,” Stoecker said.
Stoecker’s attorney Jeffrey Catrambone said that the lawsuit is more about a hostile work environment and unlawful termination under disability and handicapped laws than it is about a claim of sexual harassment.
“However, I can see how that part of the suit would draw some attention,” Catrambone said.
Catrambone said that he will seek reinstatement for his client, but he realizes that “reinstatement is often not a practical situation in terms of compensation,” he said.
“The only way to compensate will be monetary damages as much as the law will allow,” Catrambone said.
The attorney said that several members of the NHRFR will be deposed in the suit.
Officials for the NHRFR have declined comment because they believe they will be called as witnesses in the suit. All media requests were referred to Vision Media, the NHRFR’s media representatives. A Vision Media representative said the suit was “bogus” and a simple attempt to extort money.
Chief got accolades
Severino said that he has a petition signed by 230 members of the NHRFR that says that Severino is nothing but professional.
“I don’t even know who started the petition,” said Severino, who has received several accolades in his career, including the prestigious 200 Club Valor award a few years ago.
Stoecker said that he knows he is in for a tough fight.
“I know it’s an uphill battle, but I want justice,” Stoecker said. “I want to know what I did wrong. I’m 100 percent sure that this happened. I know what I’m saying is accurate and right. People should know this story.”
Stoecker said that he is currently employed as a fruit and vegetable cashier for a friend’s business.
“They stole my job, my career,” Stoecker said. “I want it back. I put a lot of work into being a firefighter. I didn’t deserve this.”