A New York judge said recently a city firefighter can be fired for wearing anti-affirmative-action T-shirts to work because the shirts create a hostile work environment.
The New York Post reports Administrative Law Judge Alessandra Zorgniotti said Brooklyn firefighter Thomas Buttaro’s refusal to stop wearing the shirts, after having been asked, amounted to insubordination.
“The FDNY is a para-military organization and may restrict a uniformed member’s appearance so long as the restrictions are rationally related to the department’s legitimate interests,” Zorgniotti said in her decision.
Buttaro has drawn flack for years for wearing the shirts, bearing the words “Merit Matters.” That is the name of an organization that remains opposed to the department’s decision to change admission test standards to accommodate minority recruits.
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The New York Post reported in September that Buttaro first faced scrutiny in 2012 after getting into a heated argument with a black colleague over a lawsuit regarding the admission standards.
“They’re disciplining him for something they’ve never disciplined anyone for before,” Buttaro’s lawyer, Adam Weiss, said at the time. “It’s a First Amendment issue. This is about the right of someone being able to express an opinion. It’s not about discrimination.”
Weiss said the department didn’t bring any disciplinary charges against Buttaro until September 2013.
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Zorgniotti said this week that Buttaro’s persistence in wearing the shirts with the polarizing slogan amounted to a “long-term pattern of harassment” and “repeated acts of insubordination.”
But even though the conflict over the shirts has continued for nearly three years, Weiss says he and his client aren’t done.
“We’re going to fight this for as long as it takes to get vindicated,” Weiss told the Post this week. “There are only two sides to the story, and it looks like [the judge] took the prosecution’s side of the story and ignored ours.”
The judge’s ruling does not mean Buttaro is automatically fired. That decision rests with Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.
Weiss said he expects a decision from Nigro next month.