BROOKLYN (CN) – New York City axed a firefighter who wore T-shirts criticizing court findings about the department’s racially biased entrance exams, the man says in a federal lawsuit.
Tension over the exams has pervaded the city for years. Though a federal judge slammed the FDNY as a “stubborn bastion of white male privilege” in 2010, the 2nd Circuit unraveled that ruling in 2013. The city settled for $98 million to head off a trial last year.
In a lawsuit he filed Thursday in Brooklyn, Thomas Buttaro, a white, 17-year veteran with the department, says he was fired this past February for his participation in a movement that believes the city has “lowered” its standards.
Buttaro says a group called Merit Matters sprang up within the department to protest the court rulings about the discrimination case.
Since 2011, Buttaro says has occasionally worn two T-shirts as a “silent and respectful expression of his support for the [Merit Matters] position.”
In addition to one shirt with the Merit Matters logo, Buttaro says he has work another shirt that says “Minorities Against Dumbing Down the Fire Department.” The back of the second shirt says “Getting This The Old Fashioned Way – Earning It!”
Buttaro belonged to Engine 234/Ladder 123 in Crown Point, but the department fired him this past February as part of an effort “to eliminate dissent within the rank and file of the Fire Department about racial quotas and diluted employment standards.”
A spokesman with the city law department denied the claims.
“Mr. Buttaro’s First Amendment rights were not violated,” the unnamed spokesman said in an email. “We will review his claims once we are served with the suit.”
Specifically Buttaro was fired for his involvement in a 2012 fight at his firehouse while wearing the T-shirt about “dumbing down” the department.
Buttaro says he called a black co-worker named Shawn Thomas a “whinny c–t,” spelling and redaction in original, because Buttaro heard Thomas complaining that the department would not promote him because of his race.
Thomas, named as a defendant to the lawsuit, then allegedly complained about Buttaro’s shirt, so Buttaro switched into his Merit Matters shirt.
Buttaro says the fire department accused him of creating a hostile work environment three months after it promoted Thomas and transferred him to another firehouse.
An administrative law judge recommended in January 2015 that the department can Buttaro, and FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro fired him the next month to “make an example out of” him, Buttaro says.
Buttaro’s firing “sent a loud and clear message to the 10,000 fire fighters in the fire department that outspoken dissent from the party line will be met with the harshest of penalties – the loss of one’s livelihood,” the 31-page lawsuit states.
In addition to the city and Thomas, Buttaro’s complaint names Commissioner Nigro and Capt. Paul Washington as defendants.
Buttaro wants his job back. He is represented by Nathaniel Smith in Manhattan.
The FDNY did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Claiming that the department “waged a targeted campaign to silence Merit Matters,” Buttaro says “there was no legitimate employment justification for” his termination.
The city’s campaign was so strong that it forced the head of Merit Matters, deputy chief Paul Mannix, to disband the group, Buttaro notes.
Capitulating to the department’s threats, Mannix even recently “publicly humiliated himself by disavowing the cause that Merit Matters fought for and Buttaro lost his job for,” according to the complaint.
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