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The city’s first female Fire Department commissioner has been slapped with a bombshell age discrimination lawsuit that alleges she demoted, ousted, forced into retirement or retaliated against 15 top older department staffers, including chiefs.
The 53-page lawsuit filed in Brooklyn state Supreme Court even claimed that FDNY boss Laura Kavanagh engineered some of the purges when she was a deputy commissioner, including targeting former Chief of Department James Leonard.
The plaintiffs include ex-FDNY Assistant Chief of Fire Prevention Joe Jardin, 61; Assistant Chief of Operations Michael Gala, 62; and Chief of Uniformed Personnel Michael Massucci, 59.
They seek unspecified damages, back pay and the return of job titles for alleged age discrimination under the city and state human rights laws and for working in a hostile and retaliatory work environment.
Gala was demoted to the “Chief Quartermaster” job title in the FDNY’s outfitting department and reassigned to Fort Totten, Queens — far from the department’s Metro Tech Center headquarters in downtown Brooklyn.
Massucci’s demotion included banishment to the Tech Services Toolroom located in Long Island City “with no responsibilities, subordinates, or direct reports”, according to the complaint.
“Kavanagh retaliated against them and created a hostile workplace. She sought not just to end, but literally to destroy, their long and distinguished careers,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Jim Walden of Walden Macht & Haran.
“The goal ….was to replace Plaintiffs and other senior employees with younger personnel. The victims were targeted because they were at or near the age of 60. The discriminatory scheme left many victims in its wake, not just Plaintiffs.”
The City of New York and JonPaul Augier, the FDNY’s deputy commissioner for life safety systems and a top Kavanagh lieutenant, are also listed as defendants.
The suit claimed older minority members of the FDNY brass were victims of the commissioner, too.
Kavanagh fired Terryl Brown, the FDNY’s Chief Legal Counsel and highest ranking African American woman, and replaced her with a younger lawyer.
The suit also alleges that Kavanagh, when she was deputy commissioned in December, 2018, passed over Arlene Hoffman, 58, the FDNY’s Director of Bureau of Operations, in favor of a “less experienced, younger male candidate” — defendant Augier, the complaint said.
“Defendant Kavanagh then forced Director Hoffman to resign. After Director Hoffman threatened to sue, FDNY settled the matter out of court,” the complaint said.
Last month, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit to overturn the demotions, but a judge denied a request for a temporary restraining order.
But the upheaval spread, with eight more FDNY chiefs — in a department that prides itself on unity and fraternity –giving up their rank and demanding to be put back into the field in solidarity with the plaintiffs who were demoted. Kavanagh blocked the mutiny.
The complaint also says Kavanagh forced senior employees off medical leave, withheld or threatened to withhold earned or customary benefits from them, cut off their computer access, and “leaked false information about them to the press.”
In an another explosive claim, the suit said Augier allegedly harassed two black firefighters while assigned to Engine 35/Ladder 14 in East Harlem, “by hanging a noose in the firehouse and referred to community residents as “animals.”
Kavanagh defended her staff shake up Thursday before the ageism suit was filed.
“I want to have my own team,” the commissioner said on NY1.
“There’s just no way as a new leader to get everything we need at the largest fire department in the country done without having your own team.”
Mayor Eric Adams has stood by Kavanagh amid the controversy, making it a point to march with her in the St. Patrick’s Day parade.