Staten Island Advance, N.Y.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A Staten Island firefighter who lost his job for refusing to get a COVID-19 vaccine can now return to work, according to a ruling this week in state Supreme Court, St. George.
Timothy Rivicci, 31, of Annadale, was fired from the FDNY in March. A lawsuit against the department and the City of New York would follow.
On Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Porzio overruled the city’s actions based on a religious exemption, allowing Rivicci to return full-time to Engine 158 in Mariners Harbor. The plaintiff also will receive back pay and compensation for legal fees. Both Rivicci and his wife are born-again Christians.
The judge’s ruling called into question the necessity of the city’s COVID-19 mandate as it pertains to a first-responder requesting an exemption from the vaccine, based on what’s currently known about the pandemic, according to court records.
“Hindsight is a powerful tool,” wrote Porzio. “The pandemic today is not what it was a year, or even two years ago. Being vaccinated does not prevent an individual from contracting or transmitting COVID-19 … guidelines regarding quarantine and isolation are the same for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.”
His decision continued: “This is not a commentary on the efficacy of vaccination, but about how we are treating our first responders, the ones who worked day-to-day through the height of the pandemic. They deserve better.”
A spokesman for the city Law Department said Thursday that “the FDNY respectfully disagrees with this ruling and is considering its options.”
“Unvaccinated firefighters can threaten the health and safety of fellow first responders and the public they closely interact with, including the most vulnerable,” the spokesman said.
Porzio contended that the city also failed to participate in “cooperative dialogue” with the plaintiff in order to reach a possible solution to the discrepancy.
In regard to a citywide vaccine exemption for athletes and performers, the Law Department argued they are “very different” because “New Yorkers can choose whether or not to attend a game or performance, while they cannot choose who responds to their 911 calls.”
“IT WAS REALLY EMOTIONAL”
Rivicci’s attorney, Christina Martinez, said she’s hopeful the judge’s decision will create a ripple effect to the benefit of other firefighters who were fired for not adhering to the vaccine mandate.
“The decision is precedent setting,” said Martinez, because it applies to any firefighter denied their right to work unvaccinated “based on a safety argument [by the city], which the court rejected.”
Rivicci told the New York Post earlier this week that he and his wife — a former teacher who also was fired for not getting the vaccine — weren’t able to pay their mortgage for months.
“I felt like my life was taken away when all of this started and [Porzio] gave me back my life,” Rivicci said. “I don’t know what we would have done. We could have lost the house if not for this decision.”
Martinez described a dramatic scene Tuesday as Porzio handed down his decision. She said her client was joined in the courtroom by family members who were crying and his other “family” from the firehouse.
“All of the firefighters rushed him, they were slapping him on the back saying ‘you’re back brother, you did it,” Martinez said. “It was really emotional.”
Porzio’s departing words to the plaintiff: “Now, go fight some fires.”
MEDICAL, RELIGIOUS EXEMPTIONS
There were 1,960 FDNY employees who had applied for exemptions as of Jan. 11, the Post Reported.
Only 15 medical and five religious exemptions were granted among fire operations members.
In September, an NYPD officer won a similar lawsuit and was allowed to keep his job.
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