A former Eastchester firefighter who was diagnosed with bladder cancer and couldn’t return to work because of the likelihood of recidivism, according to doctors, was subsequently fired for missing too much time.
Now, PJ Maldari is suing the Eastchester Fire District for civil service violations.
Maldari, a 10-year veteran of the fire department, began urinating blood for approximately 10 hours in July 2012, according to a lawsuit filed on Nov. 14 in New York State Supreme Court. Doctors would soon detect a cancerous tumor in his bladder, a common cancer among firefighters due to continued exposure to smoke and toxic fumes during fires.
Richard Corenthal, Maldari’s attorney of the New York City-based law firm Meyer Suozzi English and Kelin, P.C., called the fire district’s decision to fire his client “arbitrary and capricious and without basis in fact.”
Dennis Winter, chairman of the Eastchester Board of Fire Commissioners, declined comment when reached by phone last week.
It was during this time Maldari is believed to have first contracted cancer.
Firefighter Andrew Albanese, who lived in the temporary North End firehouse with Maldari, said, “No matter where you were in the facility, whether it be the dorm, the dayroom, the kitchen, the apparatus floor, everything smelled like diesel soot from the day we got there until the day we left.”
The tumor was removed and chemotherapy helped Maldari recover, but doctors said he couldn’t return to work because exposure to the chemicals in fires or diesel fuel may increase the risk of the tumor reoccurring.
Section 363-d of the Retirement and Social Security Law states certain cancers, including bladder cancer, are the “direct and proximate result of performing the duties of a firefighter.”
According to the lawsuit, Maldari filed for disability retirement in September 2012 but was never informed by the district of his rights regarding his bladder cancer.
He was examined by Dr. Dan Costin in February 2013 on behalf of the New York State Retirement System, the lawsuit states.
Costin found Maldari’s bladder cancer “was directly caused by the exposures that the patient had in performing his duties in the position of firefighter.”
The district never had its own physician examine the firefighter, so Costin’s medical report was the only medical record documented when the district decided to fire him.
Corenthal, Maldari’s lawyer, refuted those assertions.
He said in the lawsuit, part of the absence was because of vacation days, which are not considered non-work related injury absences, and was supported by an email by Fire Chief Michael Grogan.
In August, Maldari’s attorneys sent two letters to the fire district; one requesting a hearing if the district was going to proceed with termination of employment and the other requesting a “temporary light duty position pending [Maldari’s] application for a disability retirement.”
Maldari was fired less than a week later, Aug. 17, 2013, without responding to his requests.
A second, successful, attempt at a hearing was made in October 2013. Four hearings would follow from December 2013 to February 2014, during which the district’s lone witness, Dr. Warren Silverman, issued an opinion based on “a records review” of Maldari without physically examining him, according to the lawsuit, and determined recreational smoking was the cause of the bladder cancer, according to the lawsuit.
The district had argued this point all along, yet the lawsuit contends Maldari’s cigarette smoking was “limited and social in nature.”
Maldari cited cancer studies in his defense, including the Florida Firefighter Cancer Study which pooled 30,000 firefighters. That study concluded that “One of the most noteworthy findings among the male professional firefighters was the increased incidence of bladder cancer.” The study also found that such an increase was not likely due to higher rates of smoking since other tobacco related cancers, such as lung and oral cancer, were not increased.
But the hearing officer, who was hired by the fire district, found in favor of the fire district, saying Dr. Silverman’s testimony was “more convincing” than the argument connecting bladder cancer to firefighting, which was provided by two doctors, including Costin and Dr. Michael Lax, a professor of family medicine and medical director of the Occupational Health Clinical Center.
Maldari’s lawyer attacked Silverman’s creditability, saying he was unaware of Maldari’s exposure to diesel fumes in Station 6 or his exposure to fumes while fighting fires. Corenthal also cited a decision by an independent administrative law judge, Mark Oberman of the New York State Works Compensation Board, that found Maldari’s doctors’ arguments more persuasive, citing his young age for bladder cancer, at the time 42, and his exposure to diesel fumes as a firefighter and in Station 6.
In his decision, Oberman said Maldari was “temporarily totally disabled” from Sept. 11, 2012 to Dec. 26, 2012, and because of the high likelihood of recurrence, is disabled from Dec. 26, 2012 “to date and continuing.”
Corenthal demands Maldari receive full back pay and benefits, including health benefits needed to monitor his cancer, with interest, retroactive to Aug. 17, 2013, the date of his unlawful termination and attorneys’ fees and costs.
In the meantime, $2,500 in proceeds raised from the annual Turkey Bowl between the town’s fire and police departments went to Maldari to cover some of his medical expenses.