Judge Cites Firefighter Case Example Of ‘What Happens When Grown Men Act Like Five-Year-Olds’

Ricky and Joel Shanks were volunteer firefighters for the Village of Catskill, New York. On October 4, 2005, Joel Shanks anonymously reported multiple safety violations allegedly committed by the Department to OSHA. These violations included outdated aerial ladder inspection, lack of safety equipment, firefighters with facial hair wearing SCBAs, outdated equipment, lack of training and standards, and a failure to follow OSHA standards.

After the complaint, a company chief “told the firefighters to keep their mouths shut,” and the chairperson of the Village Board indicated that when they found out who filed the complaint they were “going to take care of business.” Supervisors and elected officials made a number of similar statements, including one by the company chief that he would “throw out the scumbag Shanks boys.” The Shanks were given numerous menial tasks normally performed by less experienced or probationary firefighters, were called “rats” and “troublemakers,” and other firefighters would drive by or park outside of the Shanks’ homes and make obscene gestures, yell insults and threats, and/or blast air horns and sirens late at night.

After the Village terminated them, the Shanks brothers filed a federal court lawsuit, alleging that they were retaliated against because of the exercise of their free speech rights. The Village filed a motion for summary judgment, contending that the Shanks had not submitted evidence that warranted a jury trial on the retaliation issue. The Court denied the Village’s motion.

The key issue before the Court was whether the Village’s actions were based upon an appropriate “governmental justification.” The Village argued that its actions were justified due to its interests in maintaining an “esprit de corps” among the company firefighters.

The Court disagreed, observing that the case presented “another example of what happens when grown men act like five-year-olds.” The Court cited the fact that the complaints made by the Shanks were not “openly abrasive or threats to members of the company or other departments. Rather, the safety complaints were made anonymously to OSHA, which indicates a desire to maintain harmony within the company. This weighs heavily against the Village.

“Further, insofar as the Shanks’ complaints addressed the adequacy of company training and the integrity of company equipment, it touched on matters of far greater public concerns and complaints about accounting practices or the disbursement of grant money. Indeed, the complaints went to the very heart of the company’s ability to effectively and safely perform its public functions. While there is certainly evidence that the Shanks brothers would not be welcomed back into the company, the Village has presented no evidence that the regular operation of the company was significantly disrupted by the speech.”

Because it denied the Village’s motion for summary judgment, the Court set the case for trial.

Shanks v. Village of Catskill Board of Trustees, 2009 WL 2868240 (N.D. N.Y. 2009).

This article appears in the December 2009 issue