Female Schenectady firefighter claims sexual harassment
SCHENECTADY A female city firefighter is claiming she was subjected to a pattern of sexual harassment at the Fire Department over a period of years and received what she took as two separate death threats.
Firefighter Jennifer Costa also alleges in the filing that she was passed over for promotions as a result of the harassment and that she is even being forced out as a result after 14 years on the job.
The allegations come in the form of a claim filed with the city Monday by Costa’s Saratoga Springs-based attorney, Giovanna A. D’Orazio. A notice of claim is the precursor to a possible formal lawsuit.
Costa alleges in the filing that she has been subjected to “egregious sexual harassment” from one member of the department in particular. She also alleges that her complaints went uninvestigated, others retaliated against her for filing complaints and she missed out on promotions twice as a result.
Finally, Feb. 2, she alleges she was “constructively discharged” from the department after reporting finding the second death threat,
The threat, similar one she alleges she received earlier, was left in her boot and consisted of “a picture of a face with a bullet in its head.”
It was immediately after that incident that she alleges she was placed on an informal leave of absence. She remains out on sick leave and is pursuing disability and early retirement.
“[Costa’s] involuntary decision to leave the Fire Department after facing intolerable working conditions, including years of harassment, death threats and discrimination and retaliation, constitutes a constructive discharge and adverse employment action under the law,” the filing reads.
City Corporation Counsel John Polster said he had just received the notice Monday morning.
He said his response will be to investigate the claims and determine the city’s response.
“I am going to start an investigation to see what I can find out,” Polster said. “At the moment, I’m not in a position to respond one way or the other. I won’t be until I do an investigation.”
Mayor Gary McCarthy said that he generally does not comment on litigation. Asked about sexual harassment in general, McCarthy said “I don’t tolerate it.”
Current Fire Chief Raymond Senecal was out of the office Monday and could not be reached for comment. Assistant Fire Chief Michael Gillespie referred comment to Polster’s office.
Costa is seeking compensation for lost pay and benefits, as well as damages for emotional distress and mental anguish.
Her other attorney, Scott Peterson, said Monday that they intend to file complaints with the Division of Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the next week or so. If a lawsuit is ultimately filed, it would likely be in federal court, he said.
Peterson said “this has been a difficult situation” for Costa.
The allegations from Costa span the tenure of three fire chiefs. The first specific allegations in the filing start in 2012. The only fire chief named specifically in the filing is Senecal.
Costa alleges that she went to Senecal, then a deputy fire chief, in early 2012 after finding the first death threat. She found that one, also in the form of a drawing of a face with a bullet in its head, on her locker at Station 4 on Nott Street.
Costa wrote she filed an “unusual incident” report and complained to Seneca at the time. She alleges that Senecal responded by saying “Boys will be boys.” Nothing came of the investigation and her problems continued, she wrote.
Shortly after that, she alleges, she was passed over for a promotion to lieutenant in favor of less qualified male employees.
Senecal formally became fire chief Feb. 11, but effectively took over the department after Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco’s retirement Jan. 30.
The bulk of the harassment she alleges came from her longtime supervisor, Lt. Dan Schettine. Efforts to reach Schettine were unsuccessful Monday.
Costa alleges Schettine made various unwanted sexual references to her over the years, including comments made to her in front of new firefighters. Schettine allegedly made other comments in front of others at Station 1 on Veeder Avenue, including in front of an unnamed deputy chief.
“Mr. Schettine’s comments were constant and pervasive and go beyond the bounds of decency and any acceptable behavior, and were made in the presence of Deputy Chiefs,” the notice reads.
In an alleged 2012 incident, another supervisor, identified as Lt. Gary Coppola, told Costa he was going to call a friend to the firehouse to have a sexual encounter with her.
Coppola then allegedly allowed that person into the fire house while in possession of an alcoholic beverage, the notice reads, “whereupon this individual propositioned [Costa] and followed [Costa] into another room when she attempted to escape his advances causing her to feel threatened and violated.”
Then, this past January, Costa alleges she was intimidated by three male supervisors, identified as Deputy Chief Vince Krawiecki, Lt. George Burns and Lt. Mike Angelozzi, over allegations she made a sexual harassment complaint against Schettine on behalf of another female firefighter.
The meeting was not in a formal office, but she was instead brought into a firehouse bedroom.
“When [Costa] complained during the impromptu bedroom meeting that the supervisors never made an effort to investigate her prior death threat, Mr. Krawiecki responded ‘What do you expect? The guys had to up the ante,’ ” the notice reads.
Within a week of that incident, Costa claims she was again passed over for a promotion. She alleges she was second on the civil service list and was passed over in favor of two less qualified men who were lower on the list.
She then received the second picture of the face with the bullet in its head. She said she reported it to her supervisor on duty, Schettine.
“Mr. Schettine told her he could not do anything for her,” the notice reads. “[Costa] reported the death threat to a captain once he arrived at the station and then to the police.”
That same day, she claims she was put on an informal leave of absence. The next day, she was ordered to go to Ellis Hospital for a “fitness for duty” evaluation, even though she had already had her physical for the year.
She contends the city told the hospital that it was concerned she was a threat to herself or others. There was no foundation for such belief, the notice said. “Rather, [Costa] was merely understandably upset when she received the death threat the day prior,” the notice reads.