N.Y. city settles suit over department's firing of first female FF for $25K

"I give 110% of myself," said Amy Newman, who served with the Tonawanda department for about 12 years before she was injured in 2018


Stephen T. Watson
The Buffalo News

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — The first woman hired by the Tonawanda Fire Department has won a settlement with the city after she claimed she was unfairly fired when an on-duty injury left her unable to perform her job.

The Common Council this month approved the $25,000 settlement with Amy Newman, ending a dispute over whether she could return to work or whether the city was justified in firing her last year.

Amy Newman had served for about a dozen years before she was injured on July 22, 2018, when she fell down some porch steps while walking out of a home, landing on her left shoulder, according to court records.
Amy Newman had served for about a dozen years before she was injured on July 22, 2018, when she fell down some porch steps while walking out of a home, landing on her left shoulder, according to court records. (Image/Tonawanda Fire Department)

A copy of the agreement, provided by the city clerk in response to a public records request, redacts the name of the firefighter. However, Newman is named in court filings that align with the settlement document. A Tonawanda official confirmed she was the firefighter involved in the settlement.

"The settlement was a good deal for the city," City Attorney S. Michael Rua said because the potential financial risk from a loss in court was far greater than this payment.

Newman's Albany-based attorney, Thomas J. Jordan, did not respond Tuesday afternoon to a message seeking comment.

The city hired Newman as a firefighter in 2006, legal filings show.

"Being the first woman to be hired in the department, I knew it was not going to be an easy road. But I didn't let that stop me," Newman said in a March 2021 civil service hearing. "I passed the Fire Academy and I came to work every time I'm scheduled. I give 110% of myself."

She had served for about a dozen years before she was injured on July 22, 2018, when she fell down some porch steps while walking out of a home, landing on her left shoulder, according to court records. She was out of work for a few months before having surgery on her shoulder in October 2018.

Newman, who received physical therapy and cortisone shots, returned to light-duty work in February 2019 for about a year.

By May 2020, Newman attempted to return to her full duties as a firefighter.

"It did not go well," Newman wrote in a complaint lodged against the city.

At the time, city firefighters were working 24-hour shifts because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Newman said that by her second week, she felt worsening pain in her left shoulder.

The orthopedic specialist treating Newman directed her not to go back to work and, Newman wrote, she never returned to the 24-hour shifts that the department used through early 2021. Instead, Newman worked eight-hour shifts and received pay for accumulated leave time.

Newman applied to the city for benefits under state General Municipal Law Section 207-a, which requires a municipality to pay the full salary of firefighters injured on duty until they have recovered from the disabling injury. The city rejected her application in September 2020 and Newman three months later filed a legal challenge seeking to overturn this decision.

Newman and the city both cited various doctors' reports as backing their respective positions.

Newman had worked as a pump operator for the Fire Department. She said driving the rig and putting on heavy turnout gear had left her sore and she could not move a ladder, handle a heavy hose or help carry anyone to safety.

The city, in turn, pointed to doctors' statements that Newman could perform her basic job responsibilities and insisted that Newman would not have to do anything that exceeded her physical abilities.

Tonawanda officials last year launched proceedings to terminate Newman. In testimony at the civil service hearing, then-Fire Chief Charles Stuart said this was the first time in his 17 years as chief that the department had taken this step.

The city's attorneys argued Newman had violated department regulations by not being honest about both the effect of the injury and what she could do to improve her injured shoulder.

For example, the city pointed to surveillance reports that showed Newman riding a bicycle in the Ride for Roswell and lifting and pushing a lawnmower. Newman and her attorney said this activity fell within the limits imposed by her doctors and had nothing to do with whether she could work as a firefighter.

Jordan argued his client had done everything possible to treat her shoulder, but doctors were clear in saying she was too badly injured to carry out her job responsibilities.

Following the hearing in March 2021, Tonawanda Police Chief William Strassburg II, the hearing officer, issued a recommendation that the city fire Newman because he found her responses "deceptive at best and deceitful at worst."

Then-Mayor Rick Davis accepted Strassburg's recommendation and fired Newman in July 2021. Newman appealed her termination in a filing in October.

Both Newman and the city won, and lost, at various stages as her two complaints made their way through the court process.

Newman has received state approval for disability retirement, which will pay her 50% of her final average salary as a firefighter.

Rua said the cost of the ongoing litigation, combined with the uncertain outcome in court, drove the settlement.

"Each side had some weaknesses in their respective cases and defenses," he said. "Nobody was willing to roll the dice."

The agreement is a "global settlement" resolving all claims and legal complaints without admission of wrongdoing by either side, the document states.

Newman must submit a statement that she has retired; has been approved by the state for a performance-of-duty disability retirement; and never again will seek employment with the city. Tonawanda will pay Newman and her attorney $25,338 as "full and final compensation."

The Common Council on Sept. 6 voted to authorize Mayor John White to execute the agreement.

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(c)2022 The Buffalo News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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