N.J. FF fired 3 hours into his first day can stay on the job, court rules

Christopher D’Amico admitted altering a document to show residence in Plainfield, but the alteration showed his correct address


Kevin Shea
nj.com

PLAINFIELD, N.J. — For the past three years, the career of a Plainfield firefighter has hinged on a few words printed on an insurance card for the roller hockey league in which he once competed.

Christopher D’Amico admitted he altered the card under pressure to bolster the residency requirements to become a city firefighter - but the address he put on the card was his real residence, the firefighter testified, and prior courts ruled.

The City of Plainfield, though, has argued repeatedly that D’Amico should not be a firefighter because the alteration showed a lack of moral character.

A state appeals court recently ruled against the city, finding numerous prior legal decisions that reinstated D’Amico back on the department were correct, and the city consistently failed to prove its case, and namely, the city itself knew of D’Amico’s transgression and improperly fired him after the fact – three hours into his first day.

His lawyer, Nicholas J. Palma, said he’s thrilled D’Amico’s legal journey is over. “Justice has prevailed for this young man,” he said.

But Plainfield’s retired fire chief, Frank Tidwell, who testified for D’Amico from the start, said the matter is just an example of how the city has dealt with the fire department issues for years: incorrectly and with a tinge of racial animus. Tidwell said if the city had respected his authority in 2017, this would have never happened.

“It’s been a waste of time, money, resources and manpower,” Tidwell said of Plainfield fighting D’Amico.

It’s messy all around, Tidwell said.

He has an ongoing lawsuit against Plainfield in which he claims he was repeatedly pressured to retire, brought up on orchestrated disciplinary charges, in part to make room for a white deputy chief, Jeff Courtney. The D’Amico matter plays a role in Tidwell’s suit too, he says.

Conversely, Courtney, in 2018, won a $450,000 decision against the city for what he says was his own racial discrimination by the city, and his suit initially named Tidwell as a party.

Plainfield officials did not return several messages and emails seeking comment about the D’Amico decision, or Tidwell’s claims. It’s unclear how much money the city paid to fight the case.

D’Amico was already a trained firefighter and volunteer in Fanwood when he applied to become a career firefighter with Plainfield in 2017, the appeals decision and prior decisions say. He moved into the city in 2015 and had established the required two years of city residency.

Plainfield firefighter candidates have to submit several proofs of residency in their application, and D’Amico did that too, but during pre-employment screening by fire, and later police officials, one noticed another recruit had also submitted a similar card from the roller hockey league. Feeling pressure to come up with more pieces of identification, D’Amico later admitted to city officials that he’d altered the card by adding to it his real address.

That set forward a chain of events during which Plainfield officials had doubts about hiring D’Amico. A committee of employment screeners submitted their recommendations to then deputy fire chief, Courtney, who would meet with the chief, Tidwell – who had the final say on hiring.

After hearing about D’Amico’s transgression, Tidwell later testified, and recently told NJ Advance Media, he decided to give D’Amico a break.

It was a minor error, and Tidwell liked the recruit, who admitted his mistake, was well trained and showed ambition by agreeing to attend the fire academy in the summer of 2017 to bond with fellow recruits – even though he already held the proper firefighting certifications.

Plus, at the beginning of his own career decades earlier, Tidwell told the committee and later testified at hearings, he’d overslept for a key fire department interview because he had young kids and was tired. The then public safety director had cut him a break. He hired D’Amico.

It should have ended there, Tidwell said.

A month later, in July 2017, city officials acting on an email from a concerned citizen, who claimed to have overheard at a city parade that some fire recruits did not live in the city, Plainfield officials revisited D’Amico’s residency, and two others.

The concerned resident, a woman, later signed a document saying she had not sent such email, the appeals decision says. Ultimately, the city’s then public safety director ordered Tidwell to fire D’Amico and two other recruits – just hours into their first day in September 2017. Tidwell objected, but did so.

D’Amico appealed, and his case first went to the Office of Administrative Law, OAL, where in 2018, a judge ruled against the city. “Plainfield has not proved by a preponderance of the credible evidence that Christopher D’Amico altered the relevant document in a material way that would speak to his character or morals,” an OAL judge wrote.

The judge added, “This new hire never had an incident at the fire academy or within the department except to voluntarily repeat his training, he never lied during the investigation instead showed me true remorse for what I can only conclude was laziness, not moral ineptitude.”

That decision put D’Amico back on the department and awarded him back pay. (Tidwell said another recruit was eventually given his job back, but the third was not mentioned in any appeals.)

The OAL decision then went to the state’s Civil Service Commission, which can adopt, modify or reject the decision. Plainfield fought on, arguing that D’Amico, “was terminated for altering the card and lying to the investigators.”

The commission also rejected Plainfield’s arguments, saying ruling the OAL got it right, the card had the correct information, and even if D’Amico committed a moral error, the city knew about it in the hiring process and was simply too late.

In the latest appeal, to the state Superior Court’s Appellate Division, Plainfield argued the commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious, and the appellate judges should draw their own conclusion. The appellate panel declined, and soundly reaffirmed the prior two administrative decisions.

The appeal panel did mention Tidwell’s testimony to the OAL, which the judge said was “honest, credible, detailed, and brave, in that he was willing to tell the truth even though he was currently involved with litigation personally with the town. He took a risk, in my opinion, to do what he felt was the right thing.”

Why exactly the city had an issue with D’Amico and the other recruits is not fully examined in the decisions, but Tidwell said, “reading between the lines” when he was chief, he believes it was because the three were white, and the city did not like white candidates moving into the city to get firefighter jobs.

Tidwell said recruits of all color routinely move into cities across New Jersey for career fire jobs, and when they do so correctly, they are hired.

He said he never wanted to go down that racial hiring road. “I didn’t look at it as a black or white thing. I looked at it as being fair.”

D’Amico remains a city firefighter.

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(c)2020 NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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