Former Meriden Fire Captain Roger Kindschi knows all about the emotional toll that tragedy can take on a person.

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the veteran firefighter was asked to set up a crisis and intervention center at Ground Zero to help injured victims and their families deal with the trauma. Several years later, Kindschi was dealing with his own emotional distress issues that his lawyer claims were brought on by “bullying” at the hands of colleagues at the Meriden Fire Department. Kindschi said a deputy fire chief threatened him, turned the rest of the station against him, and that his fire equipment had been tampered with, endangering his life.

While Meriden officials dispute many of Kindschi’s claims, the city recently agreed to settle his long-pending lawsuit for $300,000. Kindschi, who is undergoing counseling, opted to retire rather than to return to the fire department.

His lawyer, Eugene Axelrod, of Axelrod & Associates in Woodbridge, says that the firefighter’s saga is unbelievable. “I mean it sounds like I’m making it up,” he said.

But Meriden’s associate city attorney, John Gorman, said the city disputes many of the factual claims and settled the matter to avoid a potential costly jury verdict. Gorman told the Law Tribune he “couldn’t do justice” to addressing and refuting all of the allegations made by the fire captain and his lawyer.

“There was a lot of stuff we disagreed with,” Gorman said. “We had a lot of disputed factual claims but those were going to be up to a jury to decide. You don’t know how those are going to go.”

According to Axelrod, the problems for Kindschi started in late 2005 when he tried to swap a shift with another fire captain from another fire station. All together, the Meriden Fire Department has five stations. Firefighters are assigned to a particular station, but with permission they can switch shifts on occasion.

Kindschi thought he had permission for the swap, but his request had actually been denied by Assistant Fire Chief Louis DiGennaro, who had communicated his decision to the other captain involved. The assistant chief apparently believed that Kindschi was not obeying the chain of command and he later called Kindschi to chastise him.

“I have never been this mad in my life,” DiGennaro said, according to the lawsuit. “I’m going to do everything in my power to bring you down.” He then shouted, “This is war!”

Axelrod said this was not unusual behavior for DiGennaro. The attorney said the assistant chief has been known to act aggressively towards the mayor, other firefighters and police officers. He allegedly once grabbed another firefighter around the throat in a dispute, according to the complaint.

Axelrod said DiGennaro also had a “dead list.” Once you make this list, he would refuse to talk to you.

Upset over what he perceived as a threat, Kindschi held a meeting with the fire chief and the other parties involved. But Kindschi claims he didn’t get a word in and was blamed for the shift misunderstanding. From there, DiGennaro allegedly suggested “stepping outside” to settle things.

Kindschi next went to the city’s human resource deapartment. Axelrod noted that Meriden has a policy barring threats or violence among city employees. However, Kindschi claims that an HR official told him that she has no authority over the sanitation, fire and police departments. “This is where the case takes off,” said Axelrod.

Axelrod was then hired by Kindschi. The attorney wrote a letter to the HR official and the firefighters’ union explaining the situation. The letter was ultimately shared with DiGennaro and other fire officials.

At a later meeting, DiGennaro allegedly told about a quarter of the firefighting staff that “untruths” were said about him by a certain unnamed firefighter. Axelrod said everyone knew he was referring to Kindschi.

“[DiGennaro] is saying that this captain can’t be trusted to do what’s right for you in a fire because he’s untrustworthy and makes things up. [DiGennaro] is telling people not to listen to their captain,” said Axelrod. “You have to trust the judgment of your supervisors. Your life could depend on it; the lives of civilians could depend on it. If you go into a burning building and you can’t trust the judgment of the guy ordering you in, what’s going to happen? Everything’s going to break down.”

From that point on, Kindschi said he felt isolated from fellow firefighters. He wasn’t invited to any social gatherings. He claims that when he walked into a room, his colleagues would immediately stop talking.

So Kindschi filed a lawsuit against Meriden, DiGennaro and another fire official, Joseph Kaminski. Claims included defamation, emotional distress, assault, negligence and negligent supervision.

Finally, an investigation was launched, but Axelrod said it was not kept confidential. DiGennaro’s colleagues were given questionnaires, but their responses were not anonymous. Also, since DiGennaro knew about the investigation, he was on his “best behavior” during the two-month process, said Axelrod.

“DiGennaro, for a couple months, is perfect. He says ‘hi’ to everybody. People say ‘what a change, this is great,’” said Axelrod.

Not surprisingly, the attorney said, the investigation found no wrongdoing on DiGennaro’s part.

Once that probe ended, came what Axelrod called “the last straw.” That is when Kindschi noticed his fire equipment had been tampered with on more than one occasion. That included an air mask that firefighters wear to filter out strong chemicals and noxious fumes, and a “bailout kit” that firefighters carry that contains tools to help them deal with crisis situations.

At this point, Kindschi had used all of his accrued sick time and even began paying people to work his shifts. Axelrod said his client needed professional counseling to cope. A Yale psychiatrist provided expert testimony in the pending lawsuit.

Axelrod noted that the police chief later issued a memo warning safety personnel about tampering with equipment. The city also eventuallly included sanitation workers, police officers and firefighter in its no violence policy.

The case went to mediation before retired federal judge Alan Nevas, who recommended the parties reach a settlement. The case was recently settled for $300,000, plus the worth of 72 unused sick days. Kindschi then retired.

“It was my belief [the defense] could not take this case to trial. They would be in serious public trouble,” said Axelrod.

Gorman, the lawyer for Meriden and DiGennaro, agreed there was substantial risk in going to trial. “From our perspective, the settlement was driven by our insurance coverage,” said Gorman. “The insurance paid $250,000 of the judgment. We had a $50,000 deductible. Several of the claims that were made were not insured. If we didn’t settle, the case would go to trial on several counts that wouldn’t have insurance coverage.”

Further, Gorman explained, if the city opted not to settle, the insurance policy limit would shrink from $1 million to $300,000. So the city would be on the hook for any potential jury verdict of more than $300,000. “The City Council, they did what was in the best interest of the city, given the disputed factual issues and due to the realities of the insurance issues,” Gorman said.

Gorman said the city also conducted its own investigation and ordered counseling for one of the defendants. DiGennaro is still a deputy fire chief in Meriden. Even Axelrod acknowledged that DiGennaro is a “dedicated” firefighter.

Employment lawyer Gregg Adler, who is not involved in this case, said that while he regularly receives calls about hostile work environments, it is rare to get bullying complaints in a police and fire department setting. “There’s a different, more developed sense of loyalty to one another that you don’t see as much with other workplaces. I think that’s in part to the work you do” where colleagues depend closely upon each other, said Adler, a partner at Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn & Kelly in Hartford.

“It’s just different kind of work. It’s a different culture,” said Adler. “Sometimes it’s a really good thing, but if you’re someone whose breached a code of some kind, there are more ways to make you feel uncomfortable than there are in some other work places.”•