Tenth Circuit Upholds Dismissal of Suit Against Fire Department

The dismissal of a lawsuit filed against an Oklahoma fire department and two fire investigators has been upheld by the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. David Anthony Ciempa filed suit against the City of Del City, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Keester and Major Zion Williams claiming malicious prosecution and violation of his constitutional rights.

The facts as explained by the court:

  • In November 2015, Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Keester and Major Zion Williams of the Del City, Oklahoma Fire Department were called to investigate a house fire.
  • They suspected an accelerant or an incendiary device caused the fire.
  • Easton Gibbs, an occupant of the home, reported that a loud crash awakened him.
  • He went to the southeast bedroom, which was in flames, and saw a hole in the window.
  • The investigators later recovered from that room the remnants of a bottle with a rag stuffed inside, which they believed was a Molotov cocktail.
  • A forensics report could not rule out that the bottle had contained an accelerant.
  • The investigators learned that Mr. Ciempa had threatened Mr. Gibbs.
  • They also learned from Donna Spegal, the grandmother of one of Mr. Ciempa’s children, that on the night of the fire, Mr. Ciempa had confessed to starting the fire, had burns on his left hand, and bragged that he had “burned Easton out.”
  • Ms. Spegal told Major Williams that she and her daughter were “terrified” of Mr. Ciempa, and Mr. Gibbs indicated that he, too, was “afraid” of Mr. Ciempa.
  • Based on the investigation, Deputy Chief Keester and a detective prepared a warrant affidavit to arrest Mr. Ciempa.
  • A state judge found probable cause.
  • Mr. Ciempa was arrested and charged with First Degree Arson, but the case was dismissed due to an “uncooperative victim.”
  • Mr. Ciempa then filed this action, alleging constitutional violations by public officials and entities, including the City of Del City, its mayor, the fire department, several city council members, the district attorney and public defender’s offices, and the investigators.

The district court dismissed the constitutional claims and granted summary judgement to all of the defendants on the malicious prosecution claims. Ciempa appealed pro se (without counsel) to the 10th Circuit.

In a brief decision the 10th Circuit ruled in favor the defendants pointing out:

  • The district court granted summary judgment to the investigators on the malicious prosecution claim because there was no evidence to support any of the elements, which require proof that “(1) the defendant caused the plaintiff’s… prosecution; (2) the original action terminated in favor of the plaintiff; (3) no probable cause supported the original arrest… or prosecution; (4) the defendant acted with malice; and (5) the plaintiff sustained damages.”
  • In particular, the court said the criminal case was dismissed due to an uncooperative victim, not because Mr. Ciempa was actually innocent.
  • It also noted that the state judge had determined there was probable cause for the arrest and prosecution, and that Mr. Ciempa could not show the investigators procured the warrant by knowingly or recklessly relying on false information.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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