By John Paff
On May 23, 2023, Piscataway Township Fire District No. 3 in Middlesex County and Arbor Hose Company No. 1, Inc. agreed to pay $325,000 to settle a female firefighter’s sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit.
In her lawsuit, Kira Castellon, who began her employment on May 5, 2015, said that she was the first woman ever employed by the fire company as a firefighter and that it was generally known to her coworkers that she was a lesbian.
After the fire chief promoted her to the position of Safety Officer, Castellon claimed that a newly hired employee, Cesar Valenzuela-Sihuas, subjected her to a “campaign of sexual harassment.”
According to Castellon, this included nearly daily instances of Valenzuela’s unwanted advances, which included groping, kissing, and pelvic thrustings, licking her face as a greeting, unwarranted hugs, and breast groping. She claimed that her efforts to physically push Valenzuela away were met with bystanders’ laughter.
Valenzuela’s alleged behavior was witnessed by Lt. Paul Gonclavez (also the President of the fire association), Fire Commissioner Malcolm Brown, and Deputy Chief Oliver Uy, according to the lawsuit.
Castellon claimed that at least ten times Valenzuela told her to “get on your knees and I’ll make you straight again,” in the presence of Commissioner Brown, Lt. Gonclavez, and Deputy Chief Uy.
Castellon suffered workplace injury that caused her to return to work on crutches. Upon her return, she alleged that she had to “struggle to stay upright as [Valenzuela] groped her and thrust his pelvis into her rear-end.”
Castellon claimed that there were hundreds of these incidents and that they occurred during regular firehouse activities and special events, such as flea markets hosted by the firehouse.
Castellon said that her multiple attempts to report the harassment were met with resistance from Chief Joshua Scolnick and Captain Adam Scolnick, both of whom failed to properly address the situation.
The Chief’s response, according to Castellon, was dismissive, indicating that “We don’t do that here,” and refraining from providing any official documentation of the complaint.
She also claimed that Piscataway Fire District No. 3 failed to provide any training to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
On October 30, 2019, Castellon was fired for using Arbor Hose’s tax-exempt identification number in connection with alleged personal purchases at a local Sam’s Club, according to the complaint. Castellon claimed that the purchases were made for firehouse use and that she presented “exhaustive detail and documentation” regarding the purchases.
Her firing followed an October 1, 2019 meeting at which senior members of Arbor Hose, including Chief Scolnick, told her “that they were considering pressing charges to put [her] in jail,” according to the lawsuit. At the end of the meeting, Castellon said that she was told that she was being suspended.
Castellon claimed that her firing was in retaliation for complaining about the sexual harassment.
The case is captioned Kira Castellon v. Arbor Hose Company No. 1, Inc., et al, Docket No. MID-L-7840-20 and Castellon’s attorney was Paul Castronovo of Morristown.
The lawsuit and both settlement agreements are on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which Castellon agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept confidential.
She specifically agreed to not post the settlement “on any form of social media, including but not limited to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, MySpace, Snapchat, LinkedIn, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, and/or TikTok.”
Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.
None of Castellon’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court.
Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Piscataway Fire District No. 3, Arbor Hose Company or any of their official or employees.
All that is known for sure is that the Fire District, Arbor Hose or their insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Castellon $325,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps their decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims.
Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.
The Arbor Hose Company and its employees operate independently from the authority of the Township of Piscataway.
Fire services within Piscataway are overseen by four fire districts, each managed by five elected fire commissioners. These fire districts have established contracts with six volunteer fire companies responsible for conducting fire suppression activities.
Arbor Hose Company is among these volunteer companies and operates under the jurisdiction of Piscataway Fire District 3.
Any comments or concerns related to this matter should be directed to Piscataway Fire District 3, rather than the Township Council.
For information about the Fire District 3 Commissioners, including their contact details, as well as public meeting dates, hours, and locations, you can refer to this link.