Partners Christian V. McOmber and Peter D. Valenzano represent Priya Gupta in a sexual harassment and discrimination claim against the Township of Franklin, New Jersey, and the Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Department. Named defendants in the lawsuit also include Raymond Read, the Fire Chief and EMS Director for Franklin Township; Jan Verkade, the Deputy Fire Chief; and Vincent Fortunato, a Lieutenant with the Fire Department.
The complaint alleges that Ms. Gupta, an 18-year-old woman currently in her first year of college, was subjected to sexual harassment and racial discrimination while serving as a volunteer with the Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Department. Specifically, Chief Read, who is approximately 40 years old and was Ms. Gupta’s supervisor, constantly made sexually explicit comments about Ms. Gupta’s body, expressed his desire to take sexually explicit photographs of Ms. Gupta and have sex with her, and sent sexually harassing text messages to Ms. Gupta after she left for college. Ms. Gupta alleges that Chief Read’s lustful and predatory sexual pursuit of her began when she was only 16 years old and working as a waitress. Chief Read admitted giving Ms. Gupta a tip at that time because “I thought you were hot.” Chief Read’s sexual harassment was not limited to Plaintiff, as he regularly made sexually harassing and discriminatory comments about other female volunteers as well.
In addition to his constant sexual harassment of Ms. Gupta and other women, Chief Read also made numerous racially discriminatory comments to Ms. Gupta. Chief Read openly praised white supremacist groups such as the Klu Klux Klan, which he characterized as a “charity organization,” used the “N-word” to describe African Americans, and told Ms. Gupta’s co-workers he “didn’t want to smell like curry” as a result of being with Ms. Gupta, who is of Indian descent.
Ms. Gupta further alleges that Mr. Fortunato, who is in his twenties and was Ms. Gupta’s supervisor, engaged in a sexual relationship with her when she was seventeen years old. Chief Read enthusiastically encouraged Mr. Fortunato to pursue Ms. Gupta sexually, often telling him to “go for it” when Mr. Fortunato expressed his lust for the high school student. Finally, Ms. Gupta alleges that several other male firefighters also sexually harassed her on various occasions. In short, Ms. Gupta was subjected to a work environment that was openly hostile to women and non-white persons and in which Ms. Gupta was reduced to a mere sexual object for the pleasure of her male supervisors.
Instead of stopping the harassment, fixing the hostile work environment, and punishing those responsible, Franklin Township and the Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Department knowingly encouraged it and allowed it to continue indefinitely. Even when Ms. Gupta complained to Deputy Chief Read about the harassment and hostile work environment in the hope that her concerns would be addressed, Deputy Chief Read merely acknowledged that her complaints were “a long time coming” but refused to investigate or take any other action in response.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Warren County Superior Court, alleges violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, including sexual harassment, a hostile work environment, and discrimination based on race and gender. Ms. Gupta seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs.
“As alleged in the Complaint, Defendants operated a firehouse where its deeply disturbed leadership promoted a culture rife with misogyny and bigotry. Ms. Gupta fell victim to this to egregious sexual harassment and discrimination – much of which occurred while she was still a minor. We stand shoulder to shoulder with our client in exposing this outrageous and unlawful behavior.” Peter D. Valenzano, Esq., McOmber McOmber & Luber, P.C.