Several police officers and firefighters in two Essex County municipalities are fighting back in court over what they say was retaliation for seeking religious exemptions from the COVID-19 vaccine.

A lawsuit filed last week in Essex County Superior Court by Morristown attorney John Coyle on behalf of first responders in Maplewood followed an earlier one served by Coyle Law Group in late August concerning fire personnel in West Orange.

The business administrators for both townships, Jerry Giaimis in Maplewood and Jonathan Gross in West Orange, have been named as defendants, along with the municipalities themselves, and in West Orange, Mayor Robert Parisi and Fire Chief Anthony Vecchio.

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'Marched out of the police station'

Maplewood Police Officers Christopher Beischer, Diana Gil, William Isetts, Bruno Marto, Vincent Perone, and Chian Weekes-Rivera, Fire Captain Joseph Giorgio, and Fire Inspector Salvatore Aliano all submitted requests for religious exemption to the vaccine throughout the fall of 2021 and were all denied, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint says that each of the plaintiffs did eventually receive the COVID vaccine — including, in at least Giorgio and Weekes-Rivera's cases, after being placed on unpaid leave following the denial of their requests.

But Weekes-Rivera was eventually "told to hand in her badge and service firearm and literally marched out of the police station," the lawsuit said.

Other police and fire personnel, the plaintiffs allege, were granted exemptions by the Township of Maplewood.

9/11 first responder, cancer survivor sought exemption

In West Orange, Fire Captains Sean Gaynor, Joseph Neto, and Carmine Ruta, Acting Captain Sergio Rivas, and Firefighters Frank Balestriere, Joseph DeLuise, and Daniel Keenan were placed on unpaid leave for refusing the vaccine.

The lawsuit, however, says the township agreed to allow firefighters from neighboring Orange to work out of their municipality without any vaccine requirement.

The lawsuit details Gaynor's case as a 9/11 survivor who acquired renal cell carcinoma of the kidney as a consequence of responding to the 2001 attacks.

Balestriere, DeLuise, Gaynor, Keenan, and Neto applied for exemptions based on religious grounds, while Rivas and Ruta's requests were medical in nature, according to the lawsuit.

In a January 2022 Zoom meeting, Ruta recounted how he "lasted close to a year before getting COVID and giving it to my wife and kids."

The anecdote underscored what both lawsuits said were denials issued by Maplewood and West Orange on the basis that the vaccine was being required for first responders because they might come in "close contact in an emergent situation where someone in distress may not be masked and may be compromised/high risk."

Both filings said the plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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