LA County Captain Claims Bill of Rights Violation Following Refusal to Turn Over Phone

A Los Angeles County Fire Captain who was transferred from his position as a PIO in the aftermath of the Kobe Bryant helicopter crash because he would not turn over his personal cellphone, has filed suit claiming his rights under the California Firefighter Procedural Bill of Rights were violated. Captain Tony Imbrenda filed suit yesterday in Los Angeles County Superior.

The Kobe Bryant crash resulted in a major investigation into photo-taking and sharing of grisly images by first responders, primarily members of law enforcement. The public backlash led the California legislature to enact a law making it a criminal offense for first responders to take such photos. More on the enactment of that law here.

According to the complaint:

  • On January 26, 2020, Imbrenda was dispatched to the highly publicized fatality helicopter crash in Calabasas which claimed the lives of NBA Superstar Kobe Bryant and his daughter.
  • After he arrived at the scene, he was briefed by the incident Commander, gave a statement to the media, and then remained on scene to facilitate a press conference with the Fire Chief and Sherriff.
  • During this time, Imbrenda received multiple photographs from personnel operating at the impact site, as is common practice on all major incidents.
  • On January 27, 2020, Imbrenda returned to the scene to attend the morning briefing and facilitate assistance with other agencies and tend to media demands.
  • At no time during the briefing was it communicated by Chief Officers that photography of the incident would be prohibited.
  • After the morning briefing, Imbrenda traveled up to the accident site to gain intelligence on conditions and to assist the FBI photographer with her equipment.
  • At no time did Imbrenda personally take any graphic photographs or photographs of the remains.
  • Imbrenda did take a few photos of the debris field as he would have done in any other accident of this type.
  • Imbrenda did not take any photos with his personal phone.

On March 6, 2020, Captain Imbrenda was called into a meeting and directed to turn over all of his electronic devices, including his department issued cellphone and laptop. He was thereafter directed to turn over his personal cellphone. He requested union representation, who advised him not to turn over the device “as the request violated Imbrenda’s rights under the Firefighter Bill of Rights (“FIBOR”).”

Captain Imbrenda claims he was then transferred out of the PIO assignment into a less desirable assignment without a vehicle, at a considerable loss in pay. As explained in the complaint:

  • Imbrenda went to EMS on March 19, 2020 and was assigned to the Telemedicine Unit.
  • In his new assignment, Imbrenda was required to work in a dungeon-like setting during which he worked 12 hour days, was not allowed any time for mandatory exercise, was not provided a County vehicle, and was unable to work overtime.
  • Indeed, Imbrenda was now earning about half of what he earned as the PIO.
  • This was clearly a retaliatory transfer as payback for Imbrenda insisting on his FIBOR rights.
  • From there, Imbrenda was moved to Serology testing in mid-May, 2020, for which he was required to drive his personal vehicle to take blood tests in search of coronavirus antibodies in blood of the persons he tested.
  • The experience for him was totally humiliating as employees that he was blood testing made jokes and laughed at his expense as he was clearly being punished for alleged misconduct.
  • Driving his personal vehicle, with hundreds of potentially hazardous bloodborn pathogen vials, potentially placed his family’s health at risk.
  • He was regularly classified by his fellow firefighters as having been put on ”the walk of shame.”
  • Imbrenda had an impeccable reputation in the Southern California PIO community with extensive earning potential in his post fire service career.
  • That potential is now totally destroyed at this point, as his reputation both inside and outside the Department has been damaged severely.
  • Captain Imbrenda to this day does not know what misconduct allegations were made against him, in violation of the FIBOR.
  • The fire department rumor mill is relentless, and Imbrenda’s name is regularly thrown around as an individual who has been terminated or will be terminated soon.
  • Captain Imbrenda has suffered immense, severe psychological stress for months as he wonders if and when the fire department will take the devastating step of eliminating his ability to support his family.

The three-count complaint alleges a violation of the California Firefighter Procedural Bill of Rights (which I believe the acronym should be FFPBOR, or at least FPBOR, not FIBOR…  but who am I to say…); retaliation under the FFPBOR, and an allegation of retaliation under the California Labor Code §1102.5.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

The issues raised in this case cut across two important subject matter areas. The first has to do with photo-taking by on-duty personnel. Our January 6, 2021 webinar, Drafting and Implementing an Effective Digital Imagery Policy is right on point, looking at the cases and legal issues that need to be considered when crafting a realistic solution to address this problem.

The second is Managing Disciplinary Challenges in the Fire Service. The sixteen-hour program addresses the way a fire department should respond to allegations of misconduct, and best practices for conducting a fair investigation. It serves little purpose when an investigation is overturned – not because the firefighter was innocent – but because the investigators violated the employee’s rights. Firefighter bill of rights requirements, due process, Weingarten, Garrity, and Fourth Amendment search and seizure issues are thoroughly covered – including what may become a central issue in the LA County case: whether a search warrant is needed to search a firefighter’s personal cellphone. The next session is December 1-3, 2020.

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.
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