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Several FDNY officials have joined an age discrimination lawsuit against Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, the latest twist in an ongoing conflict between Kavanagh and top department officials who were demoted by the commissioner or asked for demotions in protest of Kavanagh’s decision-making.
The updated suit introduces several new bombshell allegations, including that Kavanagh obstructed the investigation of EMS Lieutenant Alison Russo-Elling's line of duty murder. It also alleges Kavanagh fired the department’s top spokesman, Frank Dwyer, because she thought he leaked the recording of a private February meeting between her and the top chiefs.
The original plaintiffs, Joe Jardin, Michael Gala and Michael Massucci, all former FDNY chiefs, filed the lawsuit under the state’s human rights laws in March, seeking damages, back pay and the return of job titles they had before Kavanagh demoted them. The updated suit includes three new plaintiffs: former EMS Chief James Booth, Deputy Assistant Chief of Safety Frank Leeb and Carla Murphy, a manager of the EMS dispatch system.
“To subject these experienced public servants to age discrimination and retaliation is not only morally wrong, it defies the letter and spirit of the laws that guarantee equal treatment in any American workplace regardless of race, gender, religion — or age,” Jim Walden, the plaintiff's attorney said in a statement. “We are hopeful that the Court will recognize the injustice suffered by this group of dedicated public servants, who have put their own lives at risk for a lifetime to ensure the safety of the people of New York.”
A central claim of the lawsuit is that Kavanagh demoted certain chiefs simply because of their age. The commissioner has said in interviews that her personnel decisions are not discriminatory but are simply the result of a new administration selecting its own team to get the job done. Mayor Eric Adams, who appointed Kavanagh to her position in the fall, has so far backed the commissioner, who he appointed on a permanent basis in October following her eight-month interim tenure in the post.
The age-discrimination lawsuit is the second filed by the maligned chiefs. In February, the chiefs filed a lawsuit alleging that the demotions posed a “grave risk” to public safety and that the city was in danger because of the loss of long-time expertise. That suit, though, was shot down a week later by U.S District Judge Rachel Kovner who concluded that the chiefs’ claims of risk and discord were “too speculative.” She also noted that some of the vacated positions had already been filled.
“A federal court already rejected plaintiffs’ claims that their demotions would put the public at risk. Now plaintiffs are trying to make this about age discrimination with new claims in state court,” a spokesperson for the city’s Law Department said of the most recent suit. “The City will respond to the suit.”
The updated suit included several allegations including that Kavanagh herself leaked a recording of the Feb. 3 meeting with staff chiefs in which she berated her subordinates. The suit alleges that Kavanagh then framed Dwyer, who didn’t attend the meeting, and had him fired.
It also alleges that Kavanagh, retaliating against Leeb, ordered the department's Safety Command to clear out of its Fort Totten, Queens, office while they were investigating Russo-Elling's murder, a move that Leeb claims delayed the investigation by two to three weeks. The suit also makes several claims about Kavanagh’s “coup” against former Chief of Department James Leonard.
“This is another unfortunate attempt to spread baseless rumors to undermine the reputation of the greatest Fire Department in the world,” an FDNY spokesperson said in a statement responding to the updated lawsuit. “The Fire Commissioner remains focused on keeping New Yorkers safe and increasing safety for the members of the FDNY.”
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