NY Civil Liberties Union Sues FDNY To Release Disciplinary Records

The New York Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against FDNY alleging a violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act by not providing requested public records. The suit was filed in Kings County Supreme Court and seeks access to FDNY’s disciplinary records.

In the past, police and fire disciplinary records were considered confidential personnel information, and exempt from disclosure. That changed in 2020. As explained in the complaint:

  • In the summer of 2020, high-profile incidents of police killings of Black people and other egregious forms of police violence nationwide sparked a new wave of public protest and dialogue about misconduct and accountability within law enforcement.
  • As a result, the New York State legislature repealed Civil Rights Law Section 50-a, known to many as New York’s “secrecy law” because, for decades, it insulated a wide-range of law enforcement-related misconduct and disciplinary records from public access, including those pertaining to fire departments.
  • This secrecy had a damaging effect on the public’s trust in the government’s ability to hold accountable those public officers who hold immense power over the lives and safety of the public.
  • While much of the attention around the repeal of section 50-a focused on misconduct and disciplinary records held by police departments, the call for a new era of transparency and accountability applies to agencies like the Fire Department of the City of New York.
  • The FDNY historically has struggled with rampant and egregious internal issues impacting Black and other FDNY employees of color.
  • To this day, the FDNY has failed to adequately address persisting issues related to racism and racial discrimination within the department and there is a significant public interest in knowing how the department handles allegations of discrimination and other forms of misconduct.
  • Thus, following section 50-a’s repeal, on April 30, 2021, the New York Civil Liberties Union submitted a detailed yet narrow request under the Freedom of Information Law to the FDNY for records relating to the department’s misconduct and disciplinary databases.
  • Specifically, the request sought electronic databases that the FDNY maintains to collect and organize reports of employee misconduct and discipline.
  • In response, the FDNY violated its obligations under FOIL by failing to respond to the request within a reasonable amount of time, failing to produce a single record, and failing to respond to the NYCLU’s subsequent administrative appeal.

The suit seeks a court order compelling FDNY to produce the requested records, together with costs and attorney’s fees. Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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