Suspension of NY Firefighter For Facebook Post Prompts $500k Federal Suit

A volunteer firefighter who was suspended for a Facebook post earlier this year, has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city, the fire chief, three assistant chiefs, four fire wardens and the fire company secretary.

James Squicciarini alleges that his Constitutional rights were violated when the Amityville Volunteer Fire Department suspended him over a photo of him in his turnout gear holding his baby that he posted to Facebook. The post included the comment: “WE ARE VOTING NICK LALOTA FOR MAYOR.” Here is a copy of the photo, which was Exhibit B to the complaint.

The suit was filed last week in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging twelve counts:

  1. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 –1st Amendment Free Speech/Political Expression
  2. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 –1st Amendment Retaliation
  3. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 –1st Amendment Viewpoint Discrimination
  4. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 – 1st Amendment Municipal Liability
  5. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 –14th Amendment Denial of Procedural Due Process
  6. Pendent State Claim – Right to Free Speech/Political Expression
  7. Pendent State Claim – Free Speech Retaliation
  8. Pendent State Claim – Procedural Due Process
  9. Pendent State Claim – Civil Rights Violation
  10. Pendent State Claim – Civil Rights Violation
  11. Pendent State Claims – Libel and Slander
  12. Pendent State Claim – Respondeat Superior/Vicarious Liability

The complaint seeks $500,000 in damages, $300,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. As explained in the complaint:

  • Squicciarini’s second child was born in February 2017. Shortly thereafter, his family had professional photographs taken with the new baby.
  • As Squicciarini had done when his first child was born, he also had photographs taken of himself dressed in his Fire Department bunker gear, holding his new baby who was dressed in a knitted makeshift bunker gear outfit.
  • Prior to taking the baby pictures, Squicciarini requested, and was granted, permission to take the pictures dressed in his Fire Department bunker gear, from Chief Budde.
  • On March 7, 2017, Squicciarini posted one of the photographs he had taken of himself dressed in his Fire Department bunker gear holding his newborn child, as his Facebook profile picture.
  • Squicciarini was Facebook friends with numerous members of the Fire Department, who upon information and belief, saw that he had posted that photograph on his Facebook account.
  • No individual, from the Fire Department or otherwise, complained about the fact that Squicciarini had posted a photograph on Facebook of himself dressed in his Fire Department bunker gear.
  • On Election Day, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, Squicciarini captioned his Facebook profile picture, the photograph in his Amityville bunker gear holding his new baby, with the following: “WE ARE VOTING NICK LALOTA FOR MAYOR,” see Exhibit B, and re-posted that photograph to his Facebook wall along with an endorsement for the other two members on Lalota’s ticket. In sum and substance, the post accompanying the photo stated ‘Vote for the team that has the education, experience and proven track record, vote for the most qualified candidates, Nick, Jim, and Jessica. Keep the Village moving forward.’
  • Squicciarini utilized that photograph because it was his favorite photograph with his new baby, and it had a black background which was suitable for placing text over it.
  • Squicciarini acted as a citizen, and posted the photograph to his personal Facebook account.
  • Squicciarini was off-duty when he posted the photograph to Facebook.
  • On March 21, 2017, at 11:01 AM, approximately one hour after posting the photograph on Facebook, Squicciarini received an Order, which was conveyed by Hose Company 4 Captain and Fire Council Warden Darren McVeety (“Captain McVeety”) via text message, which stated the following: “As per chiefs and village attorney please remove immediately the post on Facebook of you you [sic] in your amityville bunker gear endorsing a political candidate.”
  • In addition to removing the photograph at issue from Facebook, Squicciarini also removed other pro-Lalota posts in order to avoid further issues with the Fire Department.
  • At 8:56 PM later that day, Captain McVeety notified Squicciarini, again via text message, the following: “Don’t shoot the messenger. As per chiefs and fire couns[i]l relieved of duty for 30 days. You will receive a certified letter stating your right witch [sic] I know you know them.”
  • Captain McVeety confirmed that Squicciarini was suspended, and not merely placed on restricted duty.
  • Captain McVeety later explained that the suspension was for “posting a unauthorized edited picture without out permission.”
  • Squicciarini was not provided an opportunity to present his defense prior to the Fire Council voting to suspend him.
  • The Fire Council suspended Squicciarini in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of political expression, for supporting a political candidate who opposed their preferred candidate, Dennis Siry, for Village Mayor.
  • While suspended, Squicciarini was prohibited from being on Fire Department property. He was therefore prohibited from socializing within the Fire Department, and he could not bring his nephews to visit the fire trucks when they visited from out of state, as he had always done in the past, which caused him anguish.
  • While suspended, Squicciarini was also prohibited from responding to alarms, which further prevented him from accumulating points toward LOSAP benefits. For example, during his suspension, Squicciarini was prohibited from responding to a rescue call at the home of another Fire Department member, which he otherwise would have done.
  • Due to Defendants’ actions, Squicciarini was unlawfully suspended from the Fire Department, his rights to free speech, political expression, and due process were violated, as were his civil rights. He was retaliated against for exercising his rights, and he was the subject of libelous and slanderous conduct.

Here is a copy of the complaint: Squicciarini v Amityville

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • John Bean

    Another good one. As for the 1st Amendment violations, I’ve been relatively close to Buker v Howard County, Md and think the Pickering Balance Test would probably apply, even though it kinda a muddy puddle. But unlike Buker, this case apparently had immediate compliance with out any follow up posting and likes.

    I’d like your opinion on how Cleveland Bd, of Ed. v Loudermill might, or might not, apply to a volunteer firefighter.

    Thanks for keeping us entertained with thought provoking content.

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