More Firefighter on Firefighter Litigation in Latrobe, PA

An already complicated legal quagmire in Labtrobe, Pennsylvania has gotten even more complicated with the filing of another civil suit. Firefighter Robert S. Forish filed suit against the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department, the fire chief, the fire company president, and a county police detective claiming they conspired to purse criminal changes against him in 2021 without probable cause and in retaliation for his exercise of his free speech rights.

Forish, who was also a Latrobe councilman, was outspoken in his criticism of Latrobe’s fire chief. A controversy developed as to the validity of an election for chief in December, 2019, that continued on into the spring of 2020. Allegations swirled and while the mayor promised an investigation, it was halted due to the COVID pandemic.

The circumstances within Latrobe became so contentious that one of the city’s fire companies, Hose Company No. 1, voted to expel the fire chief from their fire company, and further unanimously voted to authorize the expenditure of fire company funds to defend any member of Hose Company No. 1 that the fire chief suspended, threatened to expel, and/or expelled from the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department.

When the fire chief suspended five members of Hose Company No. 1 in May, 2020, the fire company paid a total of $21,000 to retain an attorney, initially to handle the disciplinary appeals, but subsequently to file suit in federal court. That suit was filed in August, 2020 alleging violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.. Here is our earlier coverage of that suit.

According to the complaint:

  • Prior to May 27, 2020, and as a proximate result of the aforesaid March 2020 suspension of fire personnel meetings and lockdown of all City of Latrobe municipal buildings due to the Covid-19 virus, Fabian Giovannagelo, pursuant to his authority and in his capacity as President of Hose Company No. 1, signed multiple blank checks from Hose Company No. 1’s bank account … for purposes of facilitating the Treasurer’s payment of the business expenses and liabilities of Hose Company No. 1.
  • On May 30, 2020, in accordance with the aforesaid unanimous agreement of the quorum/members of Hose Company No. 1 attending the January 9, 2020 meeting… to provide financial assistance for legal representation to any member subjected to Defendant [Fire Chief] Brasile’s unlawful retaliatory and expulsion tactics, a check was issued from Hose Company No. 1’s bank account … to Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire in the amount of Five Thousand Five Hundred ($5,500.00) Dollars, and co-signed by Plaintiff Forish in his official capacity as Treasurer of Hose Company No. 1.
  • On June 24, 2020, in accordance with the aforesaid unanimous agreement of the quorum/members of Hose Company No. 1 attending the January 9, 2020 meeting… to provide financial assistance for legal representation to any member subjected to Defendant Brasile’s unlawful retaliatory and expulsion tactics, a check was issued from Hose Company No. 1’s bank account … to Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire in the amount of Five Thousand Five Hundred ($5,500.00) Dollars, and co-signed by Plaintiff Forish in his official capacity as Treasurer.
  • On July 10, 2020, in accordance with the aforesaid unanimous agreement of the quorum/members of Hose Company No. 1 attending the January 9, 2020 meeting, to wit, to provide financial assistance for legal representation to any member subjected to Defendant Brasile’s unlawful retaliatory and expulsion tactics, a check was issued from Hose Company No. 1’s bank account to Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire in the amount of Ten Thousand ($10,000.00) Dollars, and co-signed by its Treasurer, Plaintiff Forish.
  • On August 14, 2020, Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire filed a federal lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania (term number 2:20-cv-1212) on behalf of the aforesaid expelled members of Hose Company No. 1, to wit, Fabian Giovannagelo, Cody Giovannagelo, Nico Giovannagelo, Christopher Blessing, and Ryan Jones, as plaintiffs and naming Latrobe Fire Chief Brasile, the Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department (LVFD), the City of Latrobe, Rosemarie M. Wolford, Mayor, and LVFD President, Chuck McDowell, Jr. as Defendants.
  • On July 20, 2021, Defendant Randall D. Gardner filed crimen falsi criminal charges against Fabian Giovannagelo and Plaintiff Forish, charging each of them with Theft by Deception, 18 Pa.C.S. §3922(a)(1) (Felony 3); Theft by Unlawful Taking or Disposition – Movable Property, 18 Pa.C.S. §3921(a) (Felony 3); and Misapplication of Entrusted Property and Property of Government or Financial Institution, 18 Pa.C.S. §4113(a) (Misdemeanor 2) arising from the payment of the above-referenced checks from Hose Company No. 1 to Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire.
  • At all times herein mentioned, Plaintiff Forish’s arrest pursuant to the aforesaid crimen falsi felony and misdemeanor criminal charges was openly announced and publicized by newspaper and television media, inter alia, to all residents and visitors of the City of Latrobe, Westmoreland County and surrounding counties and municipalities.
  • Prior to July 20, 2021, Plaintiff Forish possessed no prior criminal record of arrests and/or convictions, and was a respected firefighter and community resident with an unblemished reputation for truthfulness and veracity.
  • At all times herein mentioned, no evidence or probable cause existed to support the aforesaid crimen falsi criminal charges filed by Defendant Gardner against Plaintiff Forish and Fabian Giovannagelo.
  • At all times herein mentioned, the aforesaid crimen falsi criminal charges were filed against Plaintiff Forish contemporaneously with, and in retaliation for, his protected First Amendment citizen speech on matters of public concern as previously described, and pursuant to Defendants’ unlawful and conspiratorial agreement to punish him for said Constitutionally protected activities and pursuits.
  • At all times herein mentioned, the above-described crimen falsi felony and misdemeanor criminal charges were filed by Defendant Gardner without any probable cause or supporting evidence and pursuant to a conspiratorial agreement with the above-captioned Defendants to unlawfully retaliate against Plaintiff Forish and Fabian Giovannagelo for (i) reporting in good faith Defendant Brasile’s aforesaid instances of wrongdoing and waste pursuant to the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law and (ii) exercising their First Amendment right to citizen speech on matters of public concern, and were outrageous and intended by the above-named defendants to wrongfully cause Plaintiff Forish and Fabian Giovannagelo to suffer severe emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, and irreparable harm to their reputations in the community for truth and veracity.
  • Plaintiff Forish’s and Fabian Giovannagelo’s December 20, 2021 preliminary hearings involving the aforesaid crimen falsi felony and misdemeanor criminal charges were attended by television and newspaper media, and extensively reported to residents and visitors of the City of Latrobe, Westmoreland County, and surrounding municipalities.
  • On December 20, 2021, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania withdrew the aforesaid criminal charges against Giovannagelo and Plaintiff Forish following defense counsels’ recommendation and offer to interplead the aforesaid Twenty-One Thousand ($21,000.00) Dollars previously paid to Fredrick E. Charles, Esquire into an account supervised by the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas and/or its authorized agent, pending the Court’s final determination whether said payments to Attorney Charles on behalf of the aforesaid expelled Hose Company No. 1 volunteer firefighters were legally authorized by Hose Company No. 1.
  • On August 30, 2022, the Honorable Harry F. Smail, Jr. entered an Order granting the relief requested in Plaintiff Forish’s and Fabian Giovannagelo’s Petition for Interpleader… finding the allegations of fact contained in said Petition for Interpleader to be true, and favorably terminating with prejudice the aforesaid crimen falsi criminal charges filed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania against Plaintiff Forish and Fabian Giovannagelo.

The suit alleges conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985; a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Monell claim (deliberate indifference); a violation of Forish’s First Amendment rights by retaliation; malicious prosecution; abuse of process; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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