BOSTON -- A Pittsfield firefighter said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday that the city of Pittsfield violated federal law when it denied him a promotion for missing too much work time in order fulfill his military obligations as a Navy reservist.
Firefighter Jeffrey Rawson said in the complaint filed with the backing of the U.S. Justice Department in federal court in Boston that he was passed over for promotion to lieutenant in September 2010 in favor of another firefighter who scored lower on the promotion test.
Rawson's superiors showed "hostility" toward his military obligations and in a letter explaining the city's decision, cited absenteeism from 2007 to 2009 as justification of not promoting him.
The suit says the decision was in violation of a federal law that prohibits civilian employers from discriminating against military reservists in employment decisions based on past, current or future service obligations.
"No service member should be prevented from advancing in his or her civil career because of military duties," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division.
Rawson is seeking retroactive promotion to lieutenant and damages, as well as back pay, benefits and seniority he said would have received had he been promoted in September 2010.
The suit also alleges the city retaliated against him by refusing to reinstate him to the promotion list after he filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department's veterans employment and training service.
The department investigated and ruled the complaint had merit before forwarding it to the Justice Department.
Mayor James M. Ruberto declined comment, saying the matter is now an issue for the courts to decide and involves a matter relating to personnel. City Attorney Richard Dohoney also declined to comment.
Rawson, a firefighter since 1990, served in the Massachusetts National Guard from 2001 until April 2002 and has been in the Navy Reserve since then.
According to his lawsuit, he was called to active military duty from October 2007 until November 2008; from February to June 2009; and again from July to September 2009.
He took the promotion exam in November 2009 and had the second highest score. The firefighter with the highest score was promoted, but Rawson was passed over in favor of the firefighter with the third-highest score, the suit says.
The suit says during the interview, acting Chief Robert Czerwinski asked Rawson whether he had any upcoming military duty.
Czerwinski, in explaining the promotion decision, said Rawson was never at work and had to decide whether he worked for the Pittsfield Fire Department or the Navy.
In a letter Rawson received from the city explaining the decision, his time off for military service was cited as justification for bypassing him for promotion.
The letter also said the third-place scorer on the test was promoted for his "exemplary work record with minimal use of sick leave." Rawson has never been accused of abusing sick time.