Commissioner’s “Conniving Ivan” Comment Not an ADA Violation, Connecticut Federal Court Finds

By Kate Acheson

In Fossesigurani v. City of Bridgeport Fire Dept., the Connecticut Federal Court dismissed an assistant city fire chief’s American with Disabilities Act claims, arising from a fire commissioner’s allegedly derogatory comment.  The court found the comment alone was insufficient proof of an adverse employment action, or a hostile work environment under the ADA.

Plaintiff Ivan Fossesigurani, an assistant chief in the Bridgeport Fire Department, claimed he was disabled due to his hypertension and nonspecific back and neck injuries.  Although Fossesigurani saw no change in his salary, benefits, or responsibilities, he claimed he was personally and professional “affected” when he heard a former fire commissioner called him “conniving Ivan.”

On April 24, 2009, then-commissioner O’Malley, an owner of a home delivery heating oil business, was called to a customer’s home in Bridgeport.  When he arrived, firefighters were on the scene.  He asked after Lt. Macnicholl, who had been terminated, then reinstated after an altercation with Fossesigurani the previous year.  When he was told Macnicholl was on a different engine, O’Malley commented that he would rather have one hundred Macnicholls than one “conniving Ivan.”

After hearing about this incident, Fossesigurani filed suit, claiming that O’Malley’s “conniving Ivan” comment violated the ADA by (1) adversely affecting his employment and (2) creating a hostile work environment.  Defendants, the City of Bridgeport and now-former fire commissioner O’Malley, moved for summary judgment dismissing all claims, claiming that Fossesigurani failed to demonstrate that (1) perceived harm to a reputation constitutes an “adverse employment action” or (2) a single comment by someone who is not a peer or direct supervisor creates a “hostile work environment.”  The court agreed with the Defendants, dismissing both claims.

First, as to the adverse employment action claim, the court noted that an “adverse employment action” is generally evidenced by a reduction in salary, demotion in title, or other tangible harm.  Fossesigurani admitted that his current salary, title, and benefits remained the same.  He failed to offer evidence beyond his own subjective beliefs and speculations that he lost the ability to successfully apply for job opportunities.  His only application since O’Malley’s comment was still pending.  Thus, the court determined that:

“[O’Malley’s] comment alone without any accompanying tangible harm or consequences which materially altered the condition of [Fossesigurani’s] employment cannot constitute an adverse employment action.”

Second, as to the hostile work environment claim, the court explained that to be actionable a hostile work environment claim must be “severe or pervasive” which generally requires “continuous and concerted” action altering an employee’s work conditions.  Here, Fossesigurani complained a single comment by someone who was not his co-worker or direct supervisor created his hostile work environment.  However, a single comment, the court concluded, is insufficient to show a “continuous and concerted” action.  Because there is only a single incident, any hostility towards Fossesigurani’s disabilities was insufficiently severe and pervasive to create a hostile work environment.