Fired Business Manager Sues Ohio Fire Department

A former business manager for an Ohio fire department, has filed suit claiming she was terminated on account of her gender and retaliated against for consulting an attorney. Deborah Roche filed suit today against the Munson Fire Department, Inc. in US District Court for the Northern District of Ohio.

Roche claims she was “talked down to” because she was a woman and directed to engage in improper accounting practices by a board member. When she objected, she was retaliated against by the department who reorganized her position, reduced her wages, and ultimately terminated her. As explained in the complaint:

  • Munson FD hired Roche on or around May 13, 2019.
  • Roche, who worked for around 16 years with the City of Lyndhurst Municipal Court as a Chief Probation Officer until 2019, was recruited by Munson FD Board Member Richard Ferlin to leave Lyndhurst and accept a position with Munson FD.
  • Munson FD employed Roche as a Business Manager.
  • As the Business Manager, Roche earned a full-time salary of $62,483.
  • Upon information and belief, Roche was the only female employee at Munson FD employed on a full-time basis during her employment.
  • As the Business Manager, Roche reported to the Munson FD Chief, Michael Vatty.
  • Despite reporting directly to Vatty, Roche effectively learned during her employment that Ferlin was going to effectively act as her supervisor.
  • Ferlin regularly talked down to Roche.
  • Ferlin treated Roche differently than male employees at Munson FD.
  • Ferlin thought Roche, as a female, would be easier to manipulate than a male employee.
  • Ferlin thought Roche, as a female, would be easier to control than a male employee.
  • In early 2020, Ferlin began approaching Roche about who he wanted her to handle specific accounting practices for Munson FD.
  • As Business Manager, one of Roche’s job duties was handling certain aspects of the company’s accounting and financials.
  • Ferlin made it a practice of telling Roche how he wanted her to carry certain accounting tasks.
  • Ferlin told Roche to move money around into different categories in the budget in order to make it appear as if certain categories had more or less funds than normal.
  • Ferlin told Roche to move money around into different categories in the budget so that it could be presented to the trustees in Munson Township and represented that certain categories in the budget needed more government funding (i.e. tax levies, COVID relief funds).
  • Ferlin used Roche to carry out this scheme because she was a female.
  • Ferlin treated Roche like a personal assistant who he believed would follow his directions in carrying out these accounting directives.
  • In or around June 2020, Roche began complaining to Ferlin about these wrongful accounting practices.
  • Roche opposed Ferlin’s treatment towards her based on her gender.
  • By July 2020, Roche has basically communicated to Ferlin that she refused to continue these deceptive accounting practices.
  • Once Roche communicated to Ferlin that she opposed his treatment towards her, Ferlin took adverse actions against Roche.
  • After Roche opposed Ferlin’s discriminatory conduct, Ferlin began assigning Roche new tasks beyond her job description.
  • After Roche opposed Ferlin’s discriminatory conduct, Ferlin began blaming Roche for alleged payroll errors.
  • Soon thereafter, in August 2020, Ferlin participated in an approved motion, with the remaining Board members, to split Roche’s position into two new positions, Financial/Accountant and Administrative Assistant.
  • Munson FD and Ferlin sought to split Roche’s position apart in order to remove the accounting duties and practices Roche had previously complained about to Ferlin.
  • Munson FD and Ferlin sought to split Roche’s position apart in order to retaliate against her.
  • Munson FD and Ferlin sought to split Roche’s position apart in order to discriminate against her based on her gender.
  • Upon information and belief, during this period of time, no male employees lost their positions or had their positions broken apart of otherwise stripped of any duties.
  • After breaking apart Roche’s position, the Financial/Accountant position was assumed by Ferlin and Brian Gray, both who are male.
  • After breaking apart Roche’s position, Munson FD stripped Roche of her Business Manager title,… salary, … benefits, … [and] her job duties.
  • On or around October 5, 2020, Munson FD then offered Roche the Administrative Assistant position.
  • The Administrative Assistant position was a demotion. The Administrative Assistant position would have reduced Roche’s salary by about $13,000 annually.
  • The Administrative Assistant position would have materially harmed and changed other terms and conditions of Roche’s current Business Manager position.
  • Munson FD presented the Administrative Assistant “offer” to Roche as an ultimatum that she either had to accept the demotion or be terminated.
  • On October 13, 2020, Vatty and Gray held a meeting with Roche about the Administrative Assistant position.
  • At the meeting, Vatty and Gray told Roche she had to either sign the offer letter for the Administrative Assistant demotion or be terminated.
  • During the meeting, Roche expressed that she wanted to talk to an attorney before making any decision.
  • During the meeting, Roche contacted her attorney by phone.
  • During the meeting, Roche and her attorney participated in a group conference call with Vatty and Gray.
  • During the call, Roche’s attorney expressed that Roche needed time to consider her future with Munson FD.
  • During the call, Roche’s attorney asked Vatty and Gray to confirm that Roche would continue to have her job at Munson FD over the next several days until she made a decision.
  • During the call, Roche’s attorney confirmed with Vatty and Gray that when Roche came into work on October 14, 2020, she would still have her job with Munson FD.
  • Vatty and Gray confirmed that Roche would be given time to consider her future employment, including the Administrative Assistant demotion.
  • Roche came into work on October 14, 2020.
  • Immediately upon coming into work on October 14, 2020, Gray and Jeremy Sustar approached Roche and demanded that she turn over her keys and company card.
  • Gray informed Roche her employment had been terminated.

The suit alleges gender discrimination and retaliation under both state law and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Specifically the complaint states: “Terminating an employee for consulting an attorney regarding the merits of a suit that would affect the employer’s interest is a violation of public policy in Ohio.”

Here is a copy of the complaint:

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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