When Dave Hojnowski, the Buffalo Bills’ longtime equipment manager and a presence in the Bills locker room for 35 years, left the team last year, the Bills described it as a retirement.
Hojnowski tells a far different story in the federal lawsuit he filed against the team Thursday.
In the suit, Hojnowski says he was fired, not retired, and that his age – he’s 54 – was a key factor in the Bills’ decision to let him go.
“This guy was there for 35 years,” said Andrew Fleming, the attorney representing Hojnowski. “He’s been doing this for decades. He even trained his replacement.”
Scott P. Horton, an attorney for the Bills, said the team could not comment at this point.
Hojnowski says he was fired in large part because of an inquiry his wife made about a health insurance benefit he would qualify for upon turning 55.
About a week later, according to the suit, Hojnowski was called into General Manager Buddy Nix’s office and told that “things weren’t going well” and that he was being fired.
The suit also says he was just 15 months away from reaching retirement age and qualifying for the post-retirement medical insurance benefit his wife asked about.
“That the Buffalo Bills would terminate a 35-year employee a week after his wife inquired about a health insurance benefit is, in my opinion, simply awful,” Fleming said.
As the team’s equipment manager, Hojnowski became a fixture in the locker room and a friend to many players. He was one of several Bills employees mentioned by former quarterback Jim Kelly in his Hall of Fame speech in 2002.
When Hojnowski, who is known as HoJo by the players, finally left last year, he was believed to be the longest-serving member of the team’s locker room support staff and one of the longest-tenured employees in the organization.
Hojnowski, a North Tonawanda resident, says his departure was not voluntary and, in his suit, outlines several instances of what he suggests is the real reason he left the team: age discrimination.
He contends, for example, that he was passed over for promotion in favor of an equipment manager 20 years his junior and that younger members of the staff often used derogatory terms to describe his age.
He also says he was restricted to the locker room on game days, was not allowed to travel as much as in the past and in general saw his duties and responsibilities diminished.
Fleming said the most telling incident may have been his annual review in early 2012, when Nix asked him how old he was and when he intended to retire.
“I think that’s evidence that his age was being taken into account,” Fleming said.
Hojnowski is seeking an unspecified amount in compensatory and punitive damages from the Bills.