New Haven Register, Conn.
East Haven’s first-ever paid female firefighter, who went on to be longtime battalion chief, has filed a lawsuit accusing the town of sex discrimination after it allegedly passed her over for a promotion in favor of a less-qualified male colleague.
The moment Eileen Parlato became a battalion chief in the East Haven Fire Department 16 years ago, she said, she knew becoming assistant chief was a longtime career goal.
“For 16 years I worked towards that goal … learning the job, observing the job, being mentored in the job by the assistant chief at the time,” Parlato said.
But when she applied for the job last year, she was disappointed.
The assistant chief position went to a male colleague who had been a battalion chief for 11 months compared to Parlato’s 16 years, according to Parlato’s sex discrimination lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Connecticut federal court.
The lawsuit alleges the town failed to promote Parlato because she was a woman and accuses the fire chief of manipulating the hiring process in a way that disadvantaged Parlato but favored a man with far less experience.
Town Attorney Michael Luzzi vehemently denied the allegations both in a public statement to the media and in correspondence between Luzzi and Parlato’s attorney, Nina Pirrotti. The New Haven Register obtained copies of the correspondence via a Freedom of Information request.
Pirrotti made the case that East Haven discriminated against her client in a Nov. 30 letter to the town that closely resembled what later would appear in Parlota’s lawsuit.
Luzzi pushed back, writing in a Dec. 16 response that the letter was “long on unsubstantiated allegations and short on any suggestions for attending to your client’s complaints.”
“Your central point that East Haven discriminated against Ms. Parlato in the promotion process is wrong for many reasons,” he wrote. “Most importantly, the candidate screening process was conducted by an independent panel comprised primarily with fire department officials from other towns. They interviewed each candidate with a set of industry standard questions, and separately evaluated the responses.”
He wrote that Parlato did not perform well enough during the interview to proceed to the next stage of the hiring process.
“Contrary to your points in the letter, Ms. Parlato was not entitled to a promotion simply because she served many years as Battalion Chief,” Luzzi wrote.
He also defended the agency’s track record on inclusivity and praised fire Chief Matthew Marcarelli, claiming that under his leadership, all women who made the eligibility lists received conditional offers of employment.
As of early June, three of the agency’s 52 employees were women, per Parlato’s lawsuit.
Allegations of unfair hiring practices
Parlato’s lawsuit tells a different story.
It alleges Marcarelli took various actions that hurt her chances of getting the promotion, including by changing the testing procedure from an objective to a subjective process.
“Historically, applicants for the (assistant chief position) had taken a written exam, an objective measure of a candidate’s qualifications for the position,” the lawsuit says. “Now, though, for the first time ever, the Chief announced that candidates for this (assistant chief) position would submit only to an oral examination.”
During that exam, the lawsuit claims, one interviewer helped the male candidate answer a question by prompting him with relevant information.
The lawsuit also alleges Marcarelli hand-picked the interview panel, falsely informed the Board of Fire Commissioners Parlato was not interested in the promotion and drafted a job description that boosted the male candidate’s chances.
That description called on at least 10 years of leadership experience for external candidates but did not impose the same requirements on internal candidates, according to the lawsuit.
“Had the same 10 years of supervisory experience been required of internal candidates, the Male Candidate — who had only 11 months of such experience — would not have been eligible to serve as the (assistant chief),” the lawsuit says.
After failing to get the promotion, Parlato retired from the department in June, according to the lawsuit, which says her decision was based on pending union contract negotiations she feared would lead to a reduction in benefits.
Asked for comment on the allegation, Marcarelli referred a reporter to Luzzi, the town attorney.
Luzzi issued a statement Tuesday condemning Parlato’s decision to sue the town and disputing the lawsuit’s accuracy.
“It is unfortunate that Ms. Parlato is choosing to end her career in this fashion. The process to select our Assistant Chief was largely based upon the unbiased evaluations of an outside independent panel,” he wrote. “It is simply shameful that Ms. Parlato and her lawyer now choose to attack our department.”
Luzzi also accused Parlato’s lawyer of using “extreme, incorrect, and dramatized facts about our Town.”
“Relevant facts matter, and as this litigation unfolds the record will unmistakably reflect that it was not the Town that attempted to manipulate this process,” he said, adding that the town is on “sound legal ground.”
Parlato was aware of the comments made regarding her lawsuit, she said, and stood by her claims.
“I’ve served the East Haven Fire Department and the community with honor and integrity for 30 years,” she said. “I stand by the allegations I made in the complaint and I will let the case stand on its merit and facts and let a jury decide.”
The lawsuit is not Parlato’s first brush with the town over alleged sex discrimination.
Thirty years ago, after serving East Haven as a volunteer firefighter, she sought to become the town’s first paid member of the department.
After the Board of Fire Commissions repeatedly postponed meetings to fill two open agency positions, Parlato accused them of intentionally delaying the decision until her eligibility expired in order to avoid hiring a woman.
The New Haven Register covered the controversy at the time.
According to Parlato’s present lawsuit, which also recounts those events, the then-chairman of the board “was not shy about expressing his belief that women should not be firefighters.”
In his letter to Pirrotti, Luzzi contended that what occurred in the early 1990s was irrelevant to the present case.
Ultimately, the board hired Parlato, who had threatened to file a sex discrimination lawsuit if it failed to do so. She then became the first paid female member of the East Haven Fire Department and was promoted to battalion chief around 2005.
Despite what Parlato described as a “rocky beginning” to her career, working for the department was a “wonderful experience,” she said.
“For the most part the men really made me feel welcome,” she said.
Parlato’s lawsuit claims that by the time the assistant chief position opened up, she had a “stellar performance history” and had accumulated a long list of accomplishments.
For example, she trained agency personnel on new electronic patient software reporting programs, trained captains on how to use a National Fire Incident Reporting System and increased revenues that allowed for the purchase of new medical equipment, the lawsuit says.
She also was certified as an Emergency Medical Services Instructor, a CPR instructor and a CT Emergency Medical Technician Practical examiner, according to the lawsuit, which alleges the candidate who was chosen as assistant chief lacked those qualifications and calls Parlato the “most experienced and objectively most qualified candidate.”
Asked what she hopes to accomplish with her lawsuit, Parlato said her goals are twofold: she is seeking to be instated as assistant chief, but she also wants to draw attention to the problem of sex discrimination.
“(Women) made a lot of progress in this male-dominated profession … but it’s clear there’s still work that needs to be done,” she said. “(The lawsuit) is not just about me. It’s about bringing to light an injustice and calling it out and letting people know that this still occurs in today’s day and age.”
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