Lieutenants being sworn in during a ceremony in 2017. Pictured left to right: Lt. Joseph Cocuzza, Lt. Qiana Brown, Lt. Benjamin Niewinski, Det. Lt. David Rodeo, Lt. Matthew Cove and Lt. Angelo Lomonte.
Kevin Shea, nj.com
A lawsuit filed by a Black police officer who said she’d endured years of racial and gender discrimination on the job in Hillside has been effectively dismissed through arbitration, the town says.
Qiana Brown first filed suit in 2017, arguing a host of allegations: that white men were promoted over her, she was not given enough time to pump breast milk and a supervisor described her hair as “kinky” and “not conservative.”
And, she found a painting of a rat with her badge number on a bathroom wall at police headquarters and the police department’s union did not accept her membership, Brown claimed.
Brown, a sergeant when she sued – she was promoted to lieutenant in late 2017 – opted for arbitration, and on March 21, the arbitrator, former Superior Court Judge Mark B. Epstein, found “no cause of action.”
Epstein found the town’s lawyers provided legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for their responses to the claims Brown raised, and Brown did not prove prove the town’s actions were motivated by racial or gender discrimination.
“Although (Brown) did present instances of isolated events that were inappropriate and unprofessional, it is my further finding that they did not rise to the level of a hostile environment as defined by case law and all such incidents and events were appropriately investigated and addressed,” Epstein wrote in the decision.
Lawyers for Hillside conceded that Brown has experienced a, “fractious and litigious history” with the department, which she joined in 2003.
Brown’s lawyers have said she is a longtime Hillside resident who only left town to serve in the U.S. Army.
Hillside lawyers, in legal filings provided by the town, said Brown kept a notebook of other officers’ actions and behaviors, which caused concern for other officers.
“What is clear, is concerns of a co-worker in the life and death situations faced by officers, should not to have a fellow officer keeping a notebook on their activities when a collegial relationship is desired,” one of the filings said.
And, Hillside lawyers argued that Brown, while she argued she’s been passed over for promotions, is currently a lieutenant with a salary of $147,246.
Police leaders took Brown’s complaints seriously, and changes were made in some instances, and internal complaints filed against Brown herself were also investigated, and they had no adverse findings or results, the town’s lawyers said.
Brown’s lawyer, Josh McMahon, said Hillside’s lawyers’ were wrong about the hair issue, and glossed over the issue with arguments that Brown could not identify the officers who made remarks, saying that is an “outright false” claim.
McMahon said the facts are that Hillside offered Brown $125,000 to settle the suit before arbitration and never withdrew their offer and it’s their contention that the arbitrator’s decision, a short conclusion delivered via email, “neither references nor addresses” any of the facts of the case.
“And, as a result of what we view as flagrantly racist conduct, we are looking into options to have the arbitration ‘email’ set aside,” McMahon said.
In a semi-related action, Brown filed a complaint with the state Civil Service Commission arguing she was again passed over for promotion, this time to captain in late 2020. She finished first on the captain exam, but a white man who finished second was promoted by Hillside’s mayor, the ruling says.
The state board ruled against her, saying the town properly used the Rule of Three – a ruling in which agencies in the civil service system can consider the top three candidates for every promotional spot.
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Kevin Shea may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.