Demoted Roanoke Captain Sues For Gender Discrimination Over Sex In Station

An unusual case that was in the news a few weeks ago as a discipline case has resurfaced as a Federal Court sex discrimination case.  The details of the case are complicated, so let’s run through them quickly.

On April 15, 2010, Deborah Van Ness, an EMT for the city of Roanoke, visited her boyfriend, Roanoke Fire Captain Dennis Croft in the fire station. Croft was on duty while Van Ness was off duty. The pair allegedly fell asleep watching a movie and violated the department’s 10:00 pm curfew.

Croft immediately reported the infraction to his superiors and because both Croft and Van Ness agreed no sex was involved, he received a reprimand.

Croft’s problems began when his relationship with Van Ness ended, and she changed her story claiming that they did in fact have sex in the fire station on the evening in question. Croft was terminated in June, 2010, prompting a series of lawsuits and legal maneuvering. Croft sued Van Ness for defamation (Lawsuit #1) and filed a grievance over his termination.

He also filed a suit against the city to challenge the make-up of the grievance panel (Lawsuit #2). Croft ended up losing both of the lawsuits. In the defamation suit the judge ruled that since both parties admitted they had a sexual relationship the only dispute was over the dates they had sex, and a dispute over which dates a couple had sex was not actionable as defamation. In the grievance panel make-up case, the court ruled that the city had the right to select the panel.

On May 23, 2011 the grievance panel ruled that Croft should not have been fired. He was reinstated but demoted to lieutenant, and ordered to attend sexual harassment training.

Last week, Croft filed Lawsuit #3 against the City of Roanoke claiming that by terminating him, and giving Van Ness a verbal reprimand, the city committed gender based discrimination.

The lawsuit states that “That in terminating Plaintiff [Croft] for alleged consensual sexual relations in the fire station and while simultaneously refusing to discipline Van Ness, who alleges that she actually did commit the actions resulting in Croft’s termination, Defendant City of Roanoke has discriminated against the Plaintiff on the basis of his gender.”

Probably the biggest obstacle to Croft’s suit is the fact that he was on duty when the conduct allegedly took place, while Van Ness was off duty. As such they are not similarly situated. Nevertheless, if Van Ness’s version of events is to be believed, it stands to reason she should have been disciplined as well – beyond a verbal reprimand (which from the allegations in the complaint appears to have been an informal admonishment rather than a reprimand) – because the incident took place on fire department property and she knowingly had sex with an on duty employee.

Here is a copy of the complaint. Croft v Roanoke

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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