A federal appeals court has handed a partial victory to a Great River supplier of school gymnasium-door safety equipment, saying it had the right to sue New York City for alleged retaliation after the company charged that many city schools failed to comply with a state law mandating the equipment.
Gym Door Repairs has been on a 13-year crusade to enforce compliance with the law, which was enacted by the State Legislature in 2001 after two children were crushed to death by electronically folding partition walls. Gym Door's affiliate, Safepath Systems, has patented a device that prevents the accidents, and the companies supply, inspect and maintain the products in schools across the state.
Part of the company's campaign has involved reporting alleged violations of bidding and prevailing wage laws on Long Island. Last month, the Suffolk district attorney's office raided a competitor of Gym Door Repairs as part of a probe of possible prevailing wage and overbilling allegations, according to Robert Clifford, spokesman for the district attorney's office.
Gym Door's 2012 lawsuit against New York City, its Department of Education and various city school officials alleged that hundreds of schools failed to comply with the state law. When Gym Door pushed the issue with city and state investigators, including the New York attorney general, it claimed its products were pulled from schools and it was blacklisted.
Last year a federal court in Manhattan dismissed the suit, but Gym Door appealed.
Last week's Appeals Court decision vacates part of the lower court ruling, noting that just because Gym Door had a financial interest in the matter, it "does not preclude First Amendment protection for speech that accuses the [New York City] defendants of failing to follow the law."
The lower court must rehear that part of the case, though other parts of the dismissal were upheld. The appeals court said the retaliation claim was "certainly plausible" given that other city contractors were "ostensibly instructed never to contract with [Gym Door Repair] on city projects."
A spokeswoman for the New York City Law Department said, "We are reviewing the court's decision."
On Long Island, Gym Door has complained that some Long Island school district affiliates and a local competitor have broken competitive bidding and prevailing wage laws in contracting the sales and maintenance work.
In early March, in response to Gym Door complaints, the Suffolk district attorney raided the Hauppauge office of rival company Young Equipment Sales, taking more than 50 boxes of documents. Clifford said the "active investigation" involves prevailing wage law claims and "whether overbilling was going on."
Rich Young, the owner of Young Equipment Sales, denied the company was involved in any wrongdoing. "It was absolutely silly how many people they [the district attorney's office] sent here," he said, adding, "We have nothing to hide."
Neither the company nor its officials have been charged.
Young defended his company's chief operating officer, Brian Burke, a former Symbol Technologies executive who previously pleaded guilty to two Symbol-related felony counts, including conspiracy to commit securities fraud, as "an absolute Boy Scout" and "one of the best people I have ever met."
Kathleen Cole, co-owner of Gym Door, applauded the appeals court decision.
"This device was never invented for monetary gain," she said of the partition safety equipment. "We did this to prevent children from dying. Yes, I want justice to be served and the people who threatened me to be held accountable. [Schools] still are not complying with the law."