Boston Firefighters Accuse City of First Amendment Violation for Disciplining Union Official

Boston Firefighters, IAFF Local 718, and an executive board member, James Riley, have filed suit against the city and Fire Commissioner Paul F. Burke alleging that disciplinary action taken against Riley for an email he sent last year violates the First Amendment.  Riley was suspended for four days because his email to Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Chief of the City’s Streets Department was deemed to be intimidating and violated the chain of command.

Riley’s email was sent from his union email address with the knowledge and permission of Local 718’s president, Samuel Dillon. The email concerned safety issues related to the sidewalk, wheelchair ramp, and apron at the quarters of Engine 28 and Tower Ladder 10, 746 Centre Street in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of the city. The station’s captain had been repeatedly requesting the repairs for several years, to no avail. The complaint includes copies of the captain’s emails to various city officials dating back to 2021.

The complaint was filed in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Numerous civilians complained to Riley and firefighters assigned to the 746 Centre Street firehouse, which they sent up through the chain of command with no resolution.
  • These complaints included a nearby resident falling outside the firehouse and sustaining an injury when she tripped on the sidewalk cracks; baby strollers getting stuck in the sidewalk cracks, one almost toppling over with a baby inside; young children falling and scraping their knees due to the broken concrete apron; and multiple residents in wheelchairs getting stuck while attempting to use the deteriorating handicapped ramp.
  • On or about September 26, 2023, Riley sent an email from his Union email address to the City of Boston Chief of the Streets Department, Jascha Franklin-Hodge stating:
    • Ms. Franklin-Hodge, I am writing you to ask for assistance with an ongoing issue in front of the firehouse at 746 Center St JP [sic]. The sidewalk and handicapped ramps have been marked up for replacement by the city since the summer of 2022. To date there have been some hot top placed to help ease the issue but not permanent resolution. Most, if not all, of the ramps going down Center St [sic] were repaired and replaced last summer by the city. As a firefighter who proudly works in the neighborhood and spends time outside the firehouse interacting with the constituents we are constantly asked when this issue is going to be resolved. We have no answer and can only direct them to make a 311 complaint. I strongly believe the [sic] is a safety issue for the citizens and guests who walk by here on a regular basis. Is the city going to wait till someone is injured before resolving this public safety issue? Please see attached photos taken recently for reference. Thanks Jim.
  • Riley sent the email in the preceding paragraph in his capacity as a Union Executive Board Member and with the approval of the Union President Samuel Dillon who was concerned about this unaddressed safety issue for both his firefighter membership and the civilians living in that area.
  • On or about September 26, 2023, Mr. Franklin-Hodge responded to Riley’s email stating: “Thank you for the note. We’ll look into it. – Jascha.”
  • On or about September 27, 2023, Fire Commissioner Burke contacted Ms. Franklin-Hodge and requested a copy of Riley’s September 26th email to her, and she promptly provided such to him.
  • On or about October 11, 2023, Deputy Chief Christopher Burke, Deputy Chief for the Boston Fire Department Personnel Division, issued Riley a notice suspending him for four (4) tours of duty stating in the relevant part:
    • In that, James P. Riley … sent a hostile email request to a City of Boston department head regarding the condition of the sidewalk and handicapped ramp outside of a firehouse. He used his Local 718 Union title in an attempt to intimidate the City of Boston official into action. He also violated the chain of command by failing to go through the required Boston Fire Department command structure …. This four-tour suspension is accompanied by an official reprimand which will become an official part of your record. This suspension is issued for the good of the department and the good of the fire service.

The complaint seeks back pay for Riley along with damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. It also seeks an injunction to remove the disciplinary action from Riley’s personnel file.

According to the Boston Globe, Local 718 has a grievance pending over the discipline.

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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