The Examiner

Appeal Granted in New Castle DPW Discrimination Case

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A former New Castle Department of Public Works employee who claimed he was fired nearly eight years ago in retaliation for bringing a discrimination action against the town may finally get his day in court.

The Appellate Division last week overturned a May 2012 state Supreme Court decision that had granted the Town of New Castle’s motion for summary judgment and a dismissal of the case brought by Jeffrey Chiara. That decision had prevented him from suing the town.

Chiara, who was hired in 1992 as a laborer and was eventually promoted to a machine equipment operator, had charged that shortly after he started working for the town, he heard repeated anti-Semitic remarks made by some of his DPW co-workers, according to arguments in papers filed with the court. While the remarks were not initially directed toward him, Chiara, who is not Jewish, argued that he was subjected to increasingly nasty comments after he told his co-workers to stop because his wife is Jewish.

“I’m gratified with the decision and (my client) is looking forward to having his day in court,” said Chiara’s attorney Alan Wolin.

The lower court had ruled that Chiara was not subjected to adverse employment action by the town based upon religion because one of the alleged chief offenders, DPW employee Michael Molnar, was not in a supervisory capacity and had been reprimanded for his actions, serving a two-week suspension in 2002.

Furthermore, alleged anti-Semitic remarks made afterwards by others were not specifically directed toward Chiara, court papers stated.

Last week, attorneys for the town said no decision has been made whether to go to the Court of Appeals or prepare for a trial.

One of the attorneys, John Walsh, said they agreed with the dissenting opinion that the town’s disciplinary decision was for issues separate from the anti-Semitic comments and that the employee who engaged in the prejudicial speech had already been disciplined.

“The hearing officer concluded that he be terminated for reasons that had nothing to do with Mr. Chiara’s allegations” against his co-workers, he said.

In 2005, Chiara brought an action against the town, Molnar and DPW Commissioner Gerard Moerschell under the state’s Human Rights Law claiming discrimination and a hostile work environment. The complaint was amended in July 2006 to also include then town administrator Jerry Faiella.

However, a month before the amended complaint was submitted, the town filed disciplinary charges against Chiara alleging seven instances of misconduct and/or insubordination. An administrative hearing officer, who rejected Chiara’s claims that the disciplinary proceedings were brought because of the discrimination action he initiated, recommended Chiara be fired after finding him guilty of five of the seven charges.

The misconduct charges included having cursed at his superior; missing a mandatory departmental meeting; using sick leave time when he admittedly was not sick; leaving work without authorization; and extending his coffee break beyond the allotted time. Chiara was terminated March 28, 2007.

As part of its defense in state Supreme Court, the town had argued that Chiara isn’t protected under the state’s Human Rights Law because he is not is Jewish and a claim of discrimination does not cover a spouse’s religious beliefs.

However, in a split vote, the Appellate Division concluded in its Jan. 14 decision that there was “no reason to construe the state statute more restrictively than the federal statute.”

The majority decision noted that Chiara effectively demonstrated that he belonged to a protected class by virtue of his marriage to a Jewish person, and that his First Amendment rights were in fact infringed upon.

The dissenting judge, however, wrote that there were “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons for terminating the plaintiff’s employment.”

Reached last Friday, Chiara said he was pleased by the decision because by confronting the town and some of his co-workers he did the right thing.

“I have no regrets for standing up for my wife, my family, my in-laws,” he said.

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