Hispanic Camden Firefighters Awarded $596K for Discrimination

May 7, 2013
Jurors agreed the two Hispanic firefighters were passed over for promotions because of their heritage.

A Camden County jury awarded $596,000 to two Hispanic firefighters who said they were passed over for promotions because of discrimination and their persistent and public complaints about discrimination against minorities within the Camden Fire Department.

Andres Nieves, 48, of Medford Lakes, and Samuel Munoz, 34, of Camden, said they were unfairly turned aside for promotion to captain in 2009.

On Thursday the jury found the men also faced a hostile work environment and retaliation.

In September 2009, the two were next in line to be promoted, and there were vacancies to be filled.

"We don't agree with the outcome," said city spokesman Robert Corrales. "The city believes we followed all civil service rules and regulations."

He said the city was considering its options, including whether to appeal.

The city was represented by an outside lawyer, Jay Blumberg of Woodbury. Blumberg did not return calls seeking comment Monday afternoon.

The jury awarded Nieves $390,000 in lost wages and pension, plus damages for having to work in a hostile environment. Munoz's $206,000 award was for past wage losses, other compensatory losses for retaliation, and damages for having to work in a hostile environment.

Munoz joined the department on Aug. 2, 2001, and Nieves did so on Feb. 3, 1997. Nieves retired in March.

"He realized he was never going to be promoted," said Gregg L. Zeff, the Mount Laurel lawyer who represented the men in their July 2011 suit against the city.

According to the lawsuit, Nieves and Munoz, as officers of the Camden City Latino Professional Firefighters Organization, were a driving force behind a push to increase diversity and promotions for minorities on the force, which numbers about 260.

They filed grievances and lawsuits, and made presentations to City Council members and government officials, the suit said.

As a result, the suit said, Munoz complained that he was "subject to unsafe fire tactics at fire scenes."

Zeff said that for safety's sake, it is common at fire scenes for firefighters to take turns being in front, aiming the hose on the fire. Supervisors sometimes left Munoz in that position for too long, he said.

After passing tests, the two men became eligible to be promoted to be captain - two of 64 people on an eligibility list expiring in December 2009. They were seventh and eighth on the list for 10 slots, but the promotions never came.

Six were promoted - three whites, two African Americans and one Hispanic - but four positions were left vacant, the suit said.

In June 2010, six months after the eligibility list expired, seven captain positions were filled, Zeff said the plaintiffs told him.

Of the seven, some had not passed qualifying tests, one was retiring, and the others had been behind Nieves and Munoz on the 2009 captain eligibility list, Zeff said. All the new captains soon retired after their pensions had increased, he said.

In 2009, Deputy Fire Chiefs Kevin Hailey and Terrence Crowder, African Americans, settled a 2001 federal discrimination lawsuit against the city.

As part of that settlement, they dropped a second discrimination suit filed in 2006. The two men, who were awarded a total of $1.15 million, retired.

In 2000, a federal discrimination lawsuit against Camden filed by white firefighters on the force was settled.

Contact Jane Von Bergen at [email protected], @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing

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