NHP firefighters win $625K in lawsuit against department

NHP firefighters win $625K in lawsuit against department
Michael Dolan Sr. (left) and Michael Dolan Jr. appear at a news conference on March 29, 2017. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

A jury on Tuesday awarded two New Hyde Park firefighters $625,000 in damages in a federal lawsuit stemming from their 2012 arrest and subsequent removal from the New Hyde Park Fire Department.

The jury in U.S. District Court in Central Islip last week found the Fire Department responsible for malicious prosecution and abuse of process against Michael Dolan Sr. and Michael Dolan Jr. after its Board of Commissioners had them wrongly arrested for stealing smoke detectors from their firehouse.

Tuesday’s verdict followed nearly four weeks of civil trial proceedings and about 10 hours of jury deliberations, Rick Ostrove, the Dolans’ attorney, said.

The ruling resolves a five-year dispute between the Fire Department and the Dolans, both volunteer firefighters and military veterans who said they were being retaliated against for holding unpopular views.

“I hope this never happens to nobody ever again,” Michael Dolan Sr., a 50-year firefighter, said Wednesday during a news conference at the Carle Place offices of Ostrove’s law firm, Leeds Brown. “I think sometimes authority went to their head, went over their head.”

The defendants in the case, filed in October 2013, included the New Hyde Park Fire Department, current fire Commissioner Michael Bonura and former commissioners John DiVello, Richard Stein and John Brown.

The jury awarded $150,000 in emotional damages and $30,000 in punitive damages to Michael Dolan Sr., a Vietnam War veteran; and $400,000 in emotional damages and $45,000 in punitive damages to Michael Dolan Jr., an Iraq War veteran and New York City firefighter.

The pair has spent around $200,000 on legal fees since the lawsuit began, Michael Dolan Sr. said.

The defendants’ attorney, Greg Reilly of the Manhattan firm Martin Clearwater & Bell, did not return a phone call seeking comment on the verdict.

The Dolans filed the lawsuit 15 months after their July 2012 arrest on felony grand larceny charges for taking what fire district officials said were 65 smoke detectors worth $50 apiece.

Prosecutors later dropped the criminal charges, but only after the Dolans were detained for eight hours and taken into court in shackles, Ostrove said.

The Dolans were then removed from the Fire Department in April 2013 after then-Chief Robert Von Werne brought disciplinary charges against them.

The Dolans argued their arrest and removal were retaliation for unpopular stances the elder Dolan had taken as a fire commissioner. The affair damaged the pair’s reputation and caused them emotional harm, Ostrove said.

“Regardless of how much money was awarded, nothing can take back the fact that my clients were put in jail, forced to answer for a crime they didn’t commit, and that newspapers ran stories with their mugshots and calling them criminals,” Ostrove said.

The jury ruled that the fire district’s actions violated the Dolans’ constitutional protections against malicious prosecution and abuse of process, but did not violate their free speech rights, as the lawsuit charged.

The Nassau County Firefighters Museum had donated the smoke detectors to be installed for free in senior citizens’ homes. But Michael Dolan Sr., then a fire commissioner, had concerns about how the program was being administered and removed the smoke detectors to safeguard them, with his son’s help, Ostrove said.

Witnesses admitted at trial that there were only 36 smoke detectors in question worth just $10 each, making them worth far less than what the fire district alleged, Ostrove said.

A July 2016 ruling in a separate lawsuit in state court ordered Michael Dolan Sr. reinstated to the fire department, saying the penalty of removal was too harsh.

Michael Dolan Jr. was reinstated at the same time that his father was removed in April 2013.

The fire district had rejected the Dolans’ allegations in federal court filings, saying the Board of Commissioners always acted in good faith and that the Dolans brought any damages upon themselves.

Michael Stein, who replaced his brother Richard Stein on the Board of Commissioners in January, declined to comment on the verdict, saying the case was still “pending.”

He could not say whether the fire department will appeal the ruling.

Bonura did not return a phone call seeking comment.


Divisions remain within the fire department, but some members have come to see that the fire commissioners acted wrongly, Michael Dolan Sr. said.

Dolan Sr. hopes the department implements policies to ensure such a situation never happens again, he said.

“Dignity means a lot, respect — getting my respect back,” Dolan Sr. said.

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