Fireman files suit against city, chief

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 28, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

A city firefighter, ordered in a Sept. 24 memo to stop communicating with city administrators, City Council members and city department heads, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and Fire Chief Mark Outlaw.

The suit, filed March 25 in U.S. District Court in Norfolk, charges that the city and Outlaw violated Lt. J.R. Lilienthal’s constitutional rights to free speech, free association and the right to petition the government for redress grievances.

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Lilienthal, an 8-year veteran of the Suffolk Department of Fire and Rescue, is also president of Local 2801 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union for the city’s professional fire and rescue workers.

According to the suit, as the union representative, Lilienthal regularly spoke out on behalf of city firefighters on issues of public concern: safety, adequate fire department staffing, fire department equipment, and emergency responses.

That stopped after Outlaw, in the memo, ordered Lilienthal to stop discussing fire department business and management issues with city administrators and council members. Additionally, according to the suit, Outlaw’s memo indicated that any outgoing communication must be reviewed by his office.

The memo threatened disciplinary action if Lilienthal did not adhere to the policy, the suit indicated.

Thomas A. Woodley, Lilienthal’s Washington D.C.-based attorney, sent several letters to the city from Oct. 28, 2002 to March 13, 2003, advising that the policy violated the firefighter’s constitutional rights and asking that the policy be rescinded.

In the suit, Woodley, in the March 13 letter, gave the city five days to rescind the policy.

The city has not responded.

&uot;We did this for four months and got nowhere,&uot; said Woodley. &uot;They kept stiff-arming us. The city has had ample time to rescind this.&uot;

In a March 6 letter, Raymond Hogge, a Norfolk attorney contracted by the city, advised that the city had concluded that the memo did not infringe on Lilienthal’s constitutional rights.

Efforts to reach Hogge were unsuccessful. Lilienthal refused to discuss the situation, referring questions to his attorney.