Jersey City Fire Department hit with gender discrimination lawsuit from female firefighter
Fire Captain Constance Zappella has filed a lawsuit against the City of Jersey City in federal court over allegations of gender discrimination within the Jersey City Fire Department’s leadership.
Many might consider Constance Zappella a trailblazer for being one of the first female firefighters in the Jersey City Fire Department’s (JCFD) history, but according to a lawsuit she filed in federal court in August 2014 – the battle for gender equality is far from over.
In her lawsuit claiming violations under federal law, particularly the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, Zappella, who was promoted to captain in 2011, names the City of Jersey City, Darren Rivers (Chief of Fire Dept.), Armando Roman (Director of Fire and Emergency Services Dept.), Jerome Cala (Assistant Director of Fire and Emergency Services Dept.), and Steven McGill (Battalion Chief) as defendants in their official and individual capacities.
According to the suit, since Zappella was first hired in 2003, “various practices and policies” have continued within the JCFD that “inflict and reflect discriminatory bias against [female employees].” As well, it’s stated that since 2003 “there have been no more than five females hired” by the JCFD.
Zappella claims that Rivers, Roman, Cala, and McGill have participated in “defacto policy and practice of gender discrimination which has proximately caused the perpetuation of a work environment hostile to female firefighters.” Among other things, she accuses the four men of:
– Denying approvals and offers of training opportunities to female firefighters, obstructing them from obtaining promotions and more prestigious positions or assignments, as well as imposing discipline as a consequence for voicing objections.
– Failure to require firehouses provide equal privileges and benefits to female firefighters, violating their reasonable expectation to privacy and a secure, safe area in which to shower, change clothes and use the restroom facilities. As well, failure to monitor and require male officers engage in proper dress attire, such that they are not moving around in their underwear, wearing nothing but towels and bathrobes, or in other stages of undress.
– Failure to keep the workplace free of language and conduct, including sexual magazines and pornography, that would be considered offensive to females. In specific, Zappella states that on occasion while carrying a firehose she was asked “if that was the biggest douche she had ever had.”
In addition, Zappella claims that she made fifteen requests for training and not one has been granted since she began her employment with the JCFD. Below are specific requests and dates she claims to have made:
Dive/Recovery Team (August 2006), Rescue Alternate (August 2006), Fire Watch Detail (November 2006), Collapse Operation I (April 2009), Rescue Alternate (May 2009), Collapse Operation I (October 2010), UASI Metro Strike Team (April 2010), Fire Service Instructor (April 2011), UASI Metro Strike Steam (April 2011), Marine 2-Hurricane Irene (August 2011), Marine 2 Training (September 2011), Dive/Recovery Team (February 2012), Safety Officer Prep Coures (February 2012), JCFD Arson Investigation Unit (May 2012), and JCFD Arson Investigation Unit (June 2012).
Regarding the JCFD Arson Investigation Unit (AIU) – Zappella claims that despite two attempts to join the unit, and Rivers initial support, McGill fought the approval because she “would not have enough time to acquire required sweatpants for the training” in Sea Girt, NJ. According to the suit, McGill allegedly implied that she would be incapable of passing the requirements and would be rejected from the training course before she would have time to receive sweat pants at orientation.
Zappella states that McGill allegedly held animosity against her and displayed such in the past.
After she claimed to have reached out to Rivers, and Roman in River’s absence, as well as an unidentified city councilwoman, Zappella was allegedly told that two male firefighters with less seniority were chosen for AIU training.
In a meeting detailed in the suit following her non-selection for training – which supposedly included her Battalion Chief Robert Forenza, the union vice president, a deputy chief, and Rivers – Rivers allegedly expressed that he was disappointed that she was speaking with anyone concerning her situation, and that she “should show patience.”
After Zappella expressed her concerns with her training requests being denied, she claims Rivers issued a written reprimand for communicating department business when she spoke with the councilwoman, but that Forenza interceded and had Rivers change it to an oral disciplinary reprimand.
In addition, Zappella claims that she followed up by filing a formal complaint with the City Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) officer concerning the AIU training denial, past history of training denials, and hostile work environment, but was never given a response.
Zappella seeks compensatory damages together with interest and costs of suit, punitive damages against the individual defendants, and such other just and equitable relief as the court may order – mostly centered improving workplace conditions.
Zappella is represented by D. Gayle Loftis, Esq., of Hackensack, NJ, whose office directed Real Jersey City to the Fulop Administration when asked if any changes have been made regarding the alleged hostile work environment for female firefighters.
Jersey City Spokesperson Jennifer Morrill did not respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit, and whether the Fulop Administration had taken steps to create a better work environment for female firefighters.