ELIZABETH, NJ — A former city of Elizabeth fire inspector has been awarded more than $1 million resulting from a lawsuit filed against the city, the Elizabeth Fire Department and Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage.
Also named in the suit is Fire Director Onofrio Vitullo, Fire Chief Edward Sisk, acting Fire Chief Thomas McNamara and Fire Official Mark Chai.
Fred Bonda, of Elizabeth, claimed in the suit that he had suffered years of harassment from the fire department because he had cited safety violations at businesses and an apartment building in the city, which were owned by friends of Bollwage.
According to the complaint, Bonda claimed that various officers, directors and officials of the city of Elizabeth and the Elizabeth Fire Department retaliated against him for issuing fire and safety violations against buildings, properties, business owners and managers, including several rooming houses, apartment buildings and restaurants.
Bonda also claimed that his supervisors set forth a pattern of discriminatory and oppressive behavior toward him, including their refusal to promote him.
Bill Holzapfel, city attorney for Elizabeth, told LocalSource in an email Feb. 1, “I am of the opinion that the appointing authority — the fire director — made the appropriate legal decision in appointing the No. 1 candidate on the Civil Service List for promotion to Fire Official. Mr. Bonda was No. 2 on the list.”
A Superior Court jury on Friday awarded Bonda $750,000 for lost wages and $325,000 for emotional distress, for a total of $1,075,000.
Bonda told LocalSource that he was unable to comment.
In his suit, filed in 2013, Bonda claimed that he was targeted for retribution after reporting safety violations at businesses, including at a construction site at Trinitas Hospital, as well as at various businesses.
According to the suit, which has been obtained by LocalSource, Bonda was subjected to “a pattern of harassment and retaliation” beginning in 1996, and a “systematic campaign of retaliation” that was “continuing and ongoing,” which caused Bonda “severe emotional and psychological stress.”
The trial began Jan. 9 and ended Jan. 27, and was presided over by Judge Thomas Walsh.
Bonda was employed with the Elizabeth Fire Department from 1995 until 2014, when he was allegedly forced to retire due to years of harassment on the job. Bonda’s last position was as a fire inspector.
Bonda filed his complaint pro se on May 30, 2013, alleging violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination mandate and the Conscientious Employee Protection Act.
The LAD claim was dismissed at summary judgement by Walsh.
Holzapfel said that the city will appeal the court’s decision.
“The city will appeal the case to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey,” Holzapfel said.
The punitive damage phase of the trial is scheduled for March.