Law360 (July 1, 2020, 11:04 PM EDT) -- The union representing more than 1,500 New York state court officers hit Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and the Office of Court Administration with a putative class action in federal court for allegedly not providing enough protective measures against COVID-19 and threatening to discipline the union's president for raising the issue.
The New York State Court Officers Association and its president, Dennis W. Quirk, are seeking at least $2 million in punitive damages over the state court system's alleged failure to protect the union's members by properly sterilizing the courts, establishing quality safety measures and providing adequate personal protective equipment.
The union also said in the suit, filed Tuesday, that some of its members have contracted COVID-19 and died, but did not state how many.
"As a result of the failure of defendants to provide PPE to union members and properly sterilized work areas within the court system, union members have been, and continue to be, exposed to COVID-19 and have in fact contracted coronavirus and have died as a result of said failure," the union said in the suit.
The union also said that after Quirk's repeated objections to the COVID-19 protocols within the court system and other related issues, the defendants "undertook a course of conduct under color of state law to silence Dennis W. Quirk by threatening him with disciplinary action, seeking to infringe upon his advocacy for his members, infringe upon his right to free speech and limit his free association with his members by attempting to effectively remove him from office."
According to the lawsuit, the union's members are sworn New York state peace officers, and the Office of Court Administration is the executive branch of the state court system that enforces the rules and regulations of the chief judge.
Judge DiFiore, as the system's top judge, is "is charged with creating and evaluating policies that address safety measures related to the spread of COVID-19 in state courthouses that is hazardous to the health or safety of the state judiciary, its employees and the general public," the union said.
According to the complaint, Quirk has also filed Freedom of Information Act requests over how the court system is managing its finances, but the requests were never properly responded to. There are concerns the money wasn't being properly prioritized to protect union members.
Causes of action in the suit include a violation of Quirk's and the union's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to free speech and free association by threatening Quirk with discipline. The complaint also alleges imminent and substantial endangerment and violations of New York labor laws.
Counsel for the union and the Office of Court Administration did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The union is represented by Pat Bonanno of Pat Bonanno & Associates.
Counsel for the defendants was not immediately available.
The case is Quirk et al. v. DiFiore et al., case number 7:20-cv-05027, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
--Editing by Jay Jackson Jr.
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