Florida Court Rules Fire Chief Has Absolute Immunity From Liability For Defamation

The Florida Court of Appeals has ruled that when publicly reporting on matters within the scope of his/her assigned duties, a fire chief has absolute immunity from liability for defamation. That ruling came in the high-profile Miami Fire Department case from 2017 that involved firefighters defacing family photos of a colleague and placing a noose-like string on one of the photos.

Three of the firefighters who were terminated over the incident filed suit against Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban and the city alleging defamation. Those firefighters, David Rivera, Kevin Meizoso, and Justin Rumbaugh, acknowledged defacing photos belonging to Lieutenant Robert Webster at the request of another Lieutenant, Alejandro Sese. However, they denied any involvement in placing the noose, and claim their reputations have been damaged by public statements made by oral and written statements made by Chief Zahralban that lumped all of the involved members together as racists.

An investigation concluded a total of 11 members were involved in the defacing and placing of the noose, six of whom were terminated. However, as explained in the Court of Appeals ruling there were actually two separate incidents that occurred on separate days:

  • On the evening of September 8, 2017, during Shift A, Lt. Sese directed a group of eleven or twelve firefighters, including the Respondents, to draw phallic images on the family photos of another lieutenant, Lt. Webster, who was not present at the fire station.
  • On the morning of September 9, 2017, the Respondents’ shift ended, and they left the fire station.
  • On September 10, 2017, during Shift B, someone placed the noose over one of the defaced photos, and the Respondents were not present when this occurred and do not know who placed the noose over the defaced photo.
  • Upon discovering the defaced photos and the noose on September 10, 2017, Lt. Webster reported the incident.
  • At Chief Zahralban’s request, the City of Miami Police Department investigated the incident, and generated a report, indicating that the drawing of the phallic images on the family photos and the placing of the noose over one of the photos were two separate incidents, separated by days and employees.
  • Further, the Respondents’ involvement, if any, was limited to drawing the phallic images on the photos, and there was no evidence that they, directly or indirectly, caused the noose to be placed over one of the defaced photos.
  • In addition to the investigation conducted by the City’s police department, Assistant Chief Robert Jorge also investigated the matter and generated an administrative report, finding that the defaced photos and the noose were the result of two separate events.
  • On November 1, 2017, the City terminated the Respondents. The Respondents’ termination letters referenced the defaced photos, but not the noose.
  • The Respondents alleged that the second paragraph [of the written press release] was false because there were two separate incidents, not one as indicated in the highlighted paragraph, and the Respondents were not, directly or indirectly, involved with the placement of the noose over one of the defaced photos.
  • In addition to Chief Zahralban’s statement, the press release included the termination letters, photos of the terminated firefighters, and photos of the noose draped over one of Lt. Webster’s family photos with his family members’ faces redacted.
  • The press release, however, did not include the police report or the administrative report, which indicated that the defacing of the photos and the draping of the noose were two incidents, separated by days and employees.
  • Further, the Respondents alleged that during the press conference held on November 3, 2017, Chief Zahralban described the defacing of the photos and the draping of the noose as a single event.
  • Thus, based on Chief Zahralban’s written and oral statements, the Respondents alleged they were falsely portrayed as racists who were responsible for placing the noose over the defaced photos, causing them irreparable harm.
  • Here, Chief Zahralban is the director of the City’s fire-rescue department
  • Further, the written and oral statements made by Chief Zahralban relating to the terminations of the Respondents fell within scope of his duties as the director of the fire-rescue department.
  • The statements kept the public informed as to the termination of the three City firefighters as a result of an incident(s) that occurred at a City fire station.
  • Therefore, Chief Zahralban and the City are absolutely immune from suit for Chief Zahralban’s written and oral statements relating to the City’s termination of the Respondents as the statements were made within the scope of Chief Zahralban’s duties as the director of the City’s fire-rescue department.

Here is a copy of the ruling:

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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