St. James firefighter files $700K lawsuit

St. James firefighter files $700K lawsuit

The St. James firehouse on Route 25A/Lake Avenue. Photo from Google Maps

A second lawsuit has been filed against the St. James Fire Dept. and its leadership as a third volunteer has stepped forward alleging unfair treatment over social media.

St. James resident John Tyson filed a federal lawsuit against St. James Fire Department and St. James Fire District Jan. 31 seeking $700,000 in damages for being first suspended, then dismissed as a volunteer allegedly over a series of Facebook posts. He claims the firehouse’s actions violated his First Amendment right to free speech and due process rights under New York State law.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body,” the lawsuit reads.

“These acts were taken purely in retaliation for [Tyson] exercising his rights to free speech by expressing views which were contrary to the views of the majority of the Fire Department’s governing body.”

— John Tyson lawsuit

Tyson was a longtime volunteer of the fire department and admitted he was an administrator of the St. James Fire Department Engine Company #1 Facebook group, along with siblings Richard and Tricia Weisse. After the Sept. 19, 2017, bond vote failed 775-459, Tricia Weisse posted a photograph of the historic Lake Avenue firehouse to the Facebook group. An unidentified person posted as a comment, “It is tough, unless you are looking for a new place to party, to see these pics and remain absolutely unemotional about tearing it down. Nice pics,” according to the court documents.

The St. James volunteer alleges in the lawsuit he received a phone call Sept. 29 from Second Assistant Chief David Mills saying that until one of the three administrators of the Facebook group admitted to posting the offensive comment, he was suspended from attending all social activities. He received a letter dated Sept. 28 signed by Chief Edward Springer confirming his suspension through Dec. 31 for allegedly violating the district’s social media policy.

“The letter did not accuse [Tyson] of posting the comment, but rather, held him responsible for the post because he was one of the three administrators of the Facebook group,” the lawsuit reads. “However, the post did not violate the social media policy, and the claimant had not violated the social media policy merely by being an administrator of the Facebook group on which the post was made.”

On Dec. 12, Tyson posted a comment on the Facebook group Citizens for a Safer St. James in response to a video made by Joe Kuethen who was running for fire commissioner. In Tyson’s comments, he wrote, “Unification of the firefighters? Difficult. That responsibility rests with the chiefs who are centered on exploiting differences and punishing those of opposing opinion.”

Tyson said he received a phone call from fire district officers Jan. 2 advising him that he was suspended from the fire department due to his post and “cannot go to the firehouse at all.” The decision, Tyson alleges, was made without any notice of the charges against him and he wasn’t provided with a hearing as required for volunteers under New York general municipal law.

Jessica Novins, a spokeswoman for the fire district, said the fire commissioners “cannot comment on matters of litigation.”

On Jan. 3, St. James Fire Department held its monthly meeting — which Tyson understood he was prohibited from attending — where its approximately 100 members voted to terminate him as a volunteer. Tyson said he was embarrassed and humiliated to learn of this, having only heard about the vote afterwards.

Kevin Barattini, a spokesman for St. James Fire Department, said the organization has no comment at this time.

This is the second lawsuit filed against St. James Fire Department and the fire district in the last three months. The Weisses, third-generation volunteers with Engine Company #1, filed a lawsuit Dec. 19 in federal court alleging the fire department, fire district and its officers illegally prevented them from attending any social events due to the Facebook post made after the bond vote in September. The pair is also seeking money for their “emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation.”

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