Airport Firefighters Seek Injunction to Prevent Retaliation Over IAFF Censure

Nine members of IAFF Local 3217, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Professional Firefighters, have filed suit against the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and three chief officers seeking an injunction to prevent retaliation against them for trying to bring to light safety related staffing concerns. The nine firefighters are the elected officers and executive board of the local, serving Reagan Washington National Airport and Dulles International Airport.

The suit claims the airport authority defendants “have undertaken a campaign of terror in an effort to silence the Plaintiffs from continuing to exercise their First Amendment free speech rights to speak on matters of public concern and to retaliate against them for exercising their First Amendment free speech rights to date.

Local 3217 sought and obtained a censure of MWAA Vice President of Public Safety Bryan Norwood, Fire Chief Denise Pouget, Assistant Chief Daniel Redman, and Assistant Chief Steven Gervis from the IAFF’s Convention in Ottowa, Ontario in August 2022. The censure passed unanimously.

Quoting from the complaint:

  • First, in response to learning about the Plaintiffs drafting a censure resolution, Pouget, Gervis and/or Redman filed an anonymous workplace complaint against Local 3217 President Shawn Lynch and Vice President Hanh Deniston over “IAFF Complaints” that has led to a disciplinary investigation by an outside legal counsel.
  • Then, once the censure resolution was approved at the IAFF Convention, Pouget, Gervis and Redman responded by threatening a frivolous defamation lawsuit against the Plaintiffs.
  • These retaliatory actions have had the effect of chilling the Plaintiffs’ right to engage in First Amendment protected speech and activity.
  • Upon learning that the Plaintiffs had drafted the resolution, Defendant Redman told a Local 3217 bargaining unit member who was also the spouse of a Local 3217 Executive Board member that the Local 3217 Executive Board was going to have to answer for the resolution.
  • Defendant Redman also suggested that there would be work related ramifications as a result of the resolution.
  • Immediately subsequent to this threatening statement, upon information and belief, Pouget, Gervis and/or Redman submitted an anonymous, baseless workplace harassment and hostile work environment complaint to MWAA against Plaintiffs Lynch and Deniston because they drafted and supported the resolution.
  • After the Local 3217 Resolution was approved at the IAFF Convention but before the resolution could be published in the IAFF magazine or distributed to the individuals and entities named above, Defendants sent a letter dated August 31, 2022, through legal counsel, to Plaintiffs, as well as other IAFF representatives, threatening them with a lawsuit for defamation and unidentified “other torts” over the introduction and adoption of the Local 3217 Resolution at the IAFF Convention.
  • In their August 31st letter, Defendants demanded that the Local 3217 Resolution be retracted and removed from wherever it had been published. Defendants also demanded a formal apology and retraction online, electronically and in writing.
  • Finally, Defendants demanded that all the entities discussed above who were notified of the Local 3217 Resolution be provided a copy of the apology and retraction.
  • When they made this threat of litigation, Defendants knew or reasonably should have known that nothing in the Local 3217 Resolution was false or defamatory.
  • Two days after Defendants’ letter threatening Plaintiffs with litigation, an outside legal counsel sent letters to Plaintiffs Lynch and Deniston notifying them that they were conducting a disciplinary investigation into the workplace harassment and hostile workplace complaint that weas filed against them.
  • As further evidence that the anonymous complaint was filed by Pouget, Gervis and/or Redman, the subject matter of the investigation by the outside counsel were the “IAFF Complaints” and MWAA had never hired an outside legal counsel to conduct a workplace complaint at FRD before, indicating that the complaint was filed by high- level FRD management employees Pouget, Gervis and/or Redman.
  • Thus, Defendants’ baseless complaint has led to an unwarranted investigation of Plaintiffs by outside legal counsel and the further threat of discipline.
  • Through counsel, Plaintiffs responded to Defendants’ August 31, 2022, letter and their subsequent anonymous complaint in a September 8, 2022 letter.
  • In their September 8th letter, Plaintiffs objected to Defendants’ blatant and unlawful threats to retaliate against them for exercising their First Amendment right to speak out on matters of public concern and efforts to silence them from exercising this right in the future.
  • Plaintiffs demanded that Defendants certify in writing that they would not take any legal action against any IAFF or Local 3217 officer over the Local 3217 Resolution.
  • Plaintiffs also demanded that Defendants withdraw the baseless workplace complaint against Plaintiffs Lynch and Deniston.
  • Defendants have refused Plaintiffs’ demands.
  • Through their conduct, Defendants unlawfully retaliated against Plaintiffs in response to the Local 3217 Resolution.
  • Defendants’ threats against Plaintiffs, including the threat of ramifications because of the Local 3217 Resolution, the threat of a lawsuit for defamation and other torts if the Local 3217 Resolution was not retracted and an apology issued by Plaintiffs, and the anonymous workplace complaint made by Defendants against Plaintiffs Lynch and Deniston leading to a disciplinary investigation, was in response to Plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected speech.
  • In threatening to take and taking these actions against Plaintiffs, Defendants acted under color of state law in that they sought to use their positions as high level FRD officials to silence and chill the Plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected speech.
  • Defendants’ threats against Plaintiffs, including the threat of ramifications because of the Local 3217 Resolution, the threat of a lawsuit for defamation and other torts if the Local 3217 Resolution was not retracted and an apology issued by Plaintiffs, and the anonymous workplace complaint made by Defendants against Plaintiffs Lynch and Deniston have adversely affected Plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected speech and willingness to exercise that constitutionally protected speech in the future.
  • As a direct, foreseeable, and proximate result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiffs have suffered, and continue to suffer, a deprivation of their constitutionally protected rights, economic injury, and irreparable harm.
  • As a direct, foreseeable, and proximate result of Defendants’ actions, Plaintiffs have suffered, and continue to suffer, mental and emotional distress, humiliation, anxiety, embarrassment, and discomfort.

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.
x

Check Also

Oregon Woman Seeks $2 Million Alleging Negligent Management of Controlled Substances

An Oregon woman who claims she was sexually abused and given stolen drugs by a fire department paramedic has filed suit against the department and an area hospital. The plaintiff, identified as AH, is seeking $2 million in damages from the Eugene-Springfield Fire Department, PeaceHealth, the City of Eugene and the City of Springfield.

Rhode Island City Seeks to Recoup Overpayment to Firefighters

The City of Warwick has filed suit against Warwick Firefighters, IAFF Local 2748 claiming that certain current and retired firefighters owe the city $385,000 in overpayments that the city allegedly made back in 2013. The payments were reportedly made pursuant to a memorandum of understanding that was never duly ratified by the city council and signed by the mayor.