Municipalities ‘blindsided’ by federal lawsuit

— Local municipalities spent months negotiating with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission over the issue of volunteer firefighters’ pensions. After passing resolutions setting amounts to pay out to the firefighters in question this past summer, board members and fire chiefs thought the issue was resolved.

So imagine their surprise when they found out about a lawsuit filed against them by the EEOC — by reading about it on a news website.

“They’ve sued the village of North Syracuse, the town of Cicero and the town of Clay,” said North Syracuse Village Mayor Mark Atkinson. “We have, for the last four years, been working with the EEOC. We all said, ‘You know, we understand the state laws, and there were some changes to the federal laws, and that supersedes everything. So we want to get everything cleared up. Let’s get it cleared up.’ So our office, in connection with VFIC, which is the insurance company, put everything together and came up with a dollar amount for those people that were within that time frame who were not getting the credits that they should. And we were still talking to them [the EEOC]. From our last conversation, which took place with our attorney in July, everything was all good. They said, ‘We’re sending this all up for your sign-off.’ The next thing I know, there’s an article on syracuse.com saying we’re being sued. I haven’t even seen the paperwork.”

Officials from other municipalities told similar tales.

“We’ve done more than work with them. We’ve agreed to and set aside monies to make these adjustments,” said Clay Town Supervisor Damian Ulatowski. “We passed a board resolution, which was signed a couple of months ago [to address the issue]. So we were blindsided.”

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, Sept. 25, in federal court, named not only the municipalities but also the Cicero, Clay, Moyers Corners and North Syracuse fire departments as defendants. It involves four counts of alleged violations of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) and demands a jury trial to resolve the issue. According to the complaint, the defendants violated the rights of several firefighters by failing to allow them to accrue credits toward their length of service award, the equivalent of a pension, because of their age.

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