The Superior Court of New Jersey ruled on Aug. 12 that a former North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue firefighter, who had been suing for wrongful suspension and termination, did not have sufficient evidence to pursue his case.
Michael Stoecker began his firefighting career in May of 2001. In 2006, he filed a suit against Battalion Chief Charles Severino, the NHRFR, and Chief Brion McElDowney.
Stoecker alleged that on his first day of work in 2001, Severino told Stoecker he could be his driver if Stoecker performed a sexual favor for him.
Superior Court Judge Barbara Curran ruled Aug. 12 that if this incident did occur, it was time-barred because New Jersey law states that sexual harassment must be reported within two years of the incident occurring. She also said there was no evidence that it did occur.
Stoecker only filed his case after the NHRFR suspended and thereafter terminated him. They claimed they had a long list of Stoecker’s disciplinary problems and that he took a lot of time off.
NHRFR Co-Director Jeff Welz said that Stoecker never told anyone about the sexual harassment claim until he was suspended and given disciplinary charges after refusing to take a psychological exam and allegedly making threats to a nurse.
Welz said that Stoecker had been on disability numerous times for injuries related to work and non-work injuries.
He said after Stoecker was on leave for almost a year due to a car accident, they asked him to be physically evaluated before returning to work.
“We brought him up on charges because basically he went in to the hospital for a fitness for duty [test], and one of the nurses down there [allegedly] heard him making terrorist threats that he’ll blow up the house, blow himself up in the firehouse, that maybe he’ll take the rig and kill people,” said Co-Director Michael De Orio last week.
Lydia Stokes, Stoecker’s attorney, said that her client received harassment in retaliation of his disability time.
Stoecker said in an interview, “I came through the highway of hostile work environments and retaliation because I defended myself on the first day on the job because I didn’t want to be subjected to sexual harassment.”
George Cotz, the other attorney working on Stoecker’s case, said he has advised Stoecker to pursue an appeal.
Stoecker has 45 days from the date of the Aug. 12 judgment to do so.
Claims he wasn’t fitting the bill
In the suit, Stoecker claimed that he was forced to “train” for a cadaver search while he had a calf injury. The document said that he carried 200 feet of fire hose up and down two stories blindfolded. He said that while he did this, another firefighter simply stood there and smoked.
Welz said that the blindfold was normal day-to-day training.
“When you go into a burning building, you have zero visibility. It’s like being blindfolded,” said Welz. “To simulate that zero visibility, you black out the face piece [for the oxygen tank] because you’ve got to know how to search and follow a wall with a tool.”
De Orio continued, “If you had any problem with the department or a member of the department you don’t wait until you get discipline charges about something else.”
Welz said that during a deposition of 16 firefighters in regards to this case, the allegedly smoking firefighter said that he was with Stoecker the entire time and that Stoecker was never alone.
Transfers and training
Stoecker claimed in his suit that he was subjected to nightly verbal examinations with Battalion Chief Cranwell and that he was routinely transferred to different firehouses.
He said that this was unusual treatment.
Welz said that training doesn’t end at a certain time, and that additional training and a one-year probationary period are necessary.
The transfer from one supervisor to another, according to Welz, was an attempt to see if Stoecker would profit from a less “autocratic” authority.
After high-ranking firefighters gave Stoecker additional training, Welz said he was improving, until his probation was over.
“When he was boxed into a corner he proved he had the ability but as soon as you took the box away he fell back into the old bad habits,” said Welz.
Open door policy
McEldowney, who was a deputy chief at the time, believes the Curran’s decision clears Severino’s name.
“In my heart, I felt that I tried a lot harder with him then I tried with other firefighters, because it was obvious that he needed the extra assistance,” said McEldowney. He said that he had an open-door policy and that Stoecker could have told someone about sexual harassment.
De Orio said that off-color jokes happen at the firehouse.
Welz explained that if Stoecker had complained to a fellow firefighter, his union, or a chief officer, about being uncomfortable, any such behavior would not have been tolerated. But he said Stoecker only did so when they suspended him.
Welz also said that Stoecker dropped an appeal with the Office of Employment Development, and went forward with his suit in Superior Court.
Stoecker believes that his allegations are 100 percent true. “A lot of things were done. I suffered a great deal,” said Stoecker. “I want people to know, and I want to get my justice.”
According to Welz, taxpayers in the North Hudson region are paying $50,000 for the work that the department had to put into this case thus far.