A Smith Township police officer who was fired last year after his chief – whom he’d previously called a racial slur – accused him of driving to an abandoned strip mine to sleep in his car while on duty is suing his former employer.
A federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday on behalf of Larry Bonazza of Chartiers Township claims the township broke laws against his age and a disability when it fired him as a full-time officer in August 2018. His attorney, Erik Yurkovich, wrote that the allegation Bonazza had been asleep on duty was a “pretext for discrimination.”
Bonazza’s lawsuit describes him as having been diagnosed with type II diabetes and being more than 60 years old. He claims the township failed to accommodate his disability and replaced him with someone younger.
The filing in the U.S. District Court for Western Pennsylvania follows a decision by a three-judge Commonwealth Court panel ruling in May that Bonazza – who was first hired by the township on a part-time basis in 1991 and made a full-time officer in 2012 – wasn’t eligible for unemployment compensation because of “willful misconduct” and finding he’d been asleep on the job.
In February 2017, Bonazza had received a written warning from the chief for sleeping during a training class outside the township – an allegation he also disputes.
In May 2017, police Chief Winford LaRue allegedly placed a clandestine tracking device in Bonazza’s patrol vehicle.
The lawsuit claims LaRue “tracked” Bonazza’s car to the former mining site the following April, when he and township Supervisor Robert Cassidy said they found him sleeping about 5 a.m.
“Bonazza denies that he was sleeping, but admits he was feeling his sugar level drop due to his Diabetes, purchased a sandwich from ‘Circle K’ and parked at the strip mine to eat it,” Yurkovich wrote.
Township solicitor Michael Cruny said he couldn’t discuss the case but said officials were familiar with it.
“The underlying matters were handled according to the township’s grievance procedures ... however (on) this specific lawsuit we have no comment at this time,” Cruny added.
The Commonwealth Court noted in its May ruling that a state unemployment compensation referee had previously determined the township had grounds to fire Bonazza, who is white, for a Facebook message in which he apparently used a racial slur to refer to LaRue, who is black.
In March 2017, LaRue suspended Bonazza for two days over the racist message. Bonazza insists he didn’t send it, “but admits that it came from his computer at his garage rental property,” according to his own lawsuit.