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 sexual 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.
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 used sexually harassing language around him on his first days on the job in 2001. These claims appear in a lawsuit that Stoecker filed against the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue and Chief Brion McEldowney.
“I was in the kitchen of the firehouse on 68th Street in Guttenberg and I was reading the newspaper,” Stoecker recalled last week.
Then, according to the lawsuit, “Severino stated to [Stoecker], ‘Yeah, you can be my driver and when I ask you to [give me oral sex], you do it’ or words to that effect.”
“There was this silence,” Stoecker said last week. “I couldn’t really talk. I was actually nauseous. It blew my mind.”
In the lawsuit, Stoecker also claims that he “witnessed Severino touch Firefighter Dean Manion’s groin and then rub his genitals against the firefighter’s buttocks.” In addition, according to the suit, “While on duty plaintiff constantly witnessed Severino making homosexual references and overt contact with his subordinates.”
The suit 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.
In the lawsuit, it states, “After plaintiff objected to the unwanted sexual advances and humor by Severino, Severino began a campaign of harassment designed to isolate and harass plaintiff to the point that he would either quit or be provoked into physical violence so that he could be fired.”
In the lawsuit, Stoecker maintains that in 2001, about a week after the initial incident, he injured his calf muscle while responding to an alarm.
During an interview Stoecker explained, “I stepped off the back of the truck and hurt myself. 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.”
The suit states that after the training, “Plaintiff’s calf became discolored and a large hematoma developed requiring a second trip to the hospital.”
Stoecker required six weeks of convalescence, according to the suit.
Left on his own
Severino said that he believes the reason Stoecker is pursuing the lawsuit is because Severino wrote a report saying Stocker’s injury was bogus.
Severino said, “He didn’t hurt himself. [Captain James] 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.”
According to the lawsuit, Stoecker’s woes continued in July of 2002 when he got into a heated argument with Captain Tom Tetta. After words were exchanged and Stoecker complained to his superiors about the behavior, according to the suit, the NHRFR ordered Stoecker to undergo a sudden mental evaluation and 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 last week. “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 take a psychiatric evaluation and sign a waiver for the doctor who was performing it, releasing that doctor from liability. He refused to sign the waiver.
Stoecker was placed on unpaid suspension, then later 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.”
“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.
In an official statement, a NHRFR spokesman said that the lawsuit “is full of false accusations that have already been fully investigated and determined to have no merit whatsoever.”
The statement added, “Stoecker is a disgruntled former employee who was terminated after a long history of discipline problems. During a routine medical examination, Stoecker made disturbing comments about taking his own life and possibly harming other firefighters. The NHRFR ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, which he refused to take. Stoecker’s allegations were taken very seriously by the NHRFR at the time and fully investigated during a lengthy process where more than a dozen firefighters were interviewed under oath. All of them denied any knowledge of even any rumors of any sexual misconduct or behavior by any individual.”
But in the suit, it states that on Aug. 19, 2003, “[A doctor’s assistant] falsely claimed that plaintiff threatened suicide.”
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.”