Roanoke, Va. firefighter loses gender discrimination suit


   Roanoke Times

A Roanoke firefighter who engaged in sexual shenanigans while on the job has failed to prove he was the victim of sexual discrimination.

Dennis Croft, a lieutenant in the city's Fire-EMS Department, was demoted from his rank of captain for having a tryst with a paramedic in the bunkhouse of a fire station.

The paramedic, Deborah Van Ness, received a verbal reprimand.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, Croft maintained that his harsher punishment as a male for the same offense committed by his female partner amounted to gender discrimination.

But Judge Glen Conrad found no evidence of discrimination in a written decision this week, noting several differences between the cases of Croft and Van Ness.

Croft was Van Ness' supervisor, for one, and he was on duty at the time of the sexual encounter while she was not.

According to court records, Croft has admitted to an off-duty sexual relationship with Van Ness, while denying that it was carried out the night of April 15, 2010, in Fire Station No. 4, as she alleged.

He was fired at first, but later won his job back, although with a demotion, after appealing to a city grievance panel.

John Loeschen, a Roanoke attorney who represented Croft, said his client never supervised Van Ness, a part-time employee. And by granting the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Conrad did not give Croft an opportunity to argue to a jury that the sexual encounter never happened, Loeschen said.

"I don't think you should ever be punished for something you didn't do," he said.

By Croft's account, he and Van Ness fell asleep on a couch while watching television together at the firehouse. Croft reported to his supervisor that he had violated a 10 p.m. curfew and was given a verbal reprimand.

Several months later — and not long after Croft and Van Ness had a nasty breakup — she told fire officials that they had had sex.

Croft was then fired by city officials, who cited his unethical conduct of having sex with a subordinate while on duty and on city property.

After Croft challenged that decision, a grievance panel reinstated him at the lower position of first lieutenant, finding that Van Ness' allegation alone was not enough on which to base his termination.

"While Croft may have legitimate arguments as to the adequacy of the internal investigation or the fairness of the outcome," Conrad wrote in his opinion, he failed to show that gender played a role in the city's disciplinary process.

Acting City Attorney Timothy Spencer argued in court papers that the city had legitimate reasons to believe Van Ness' account and act accordingly.

Continuing to focus on the quality of the investigation "misses the point," Conrad wrote, noting that his role was to look for discrimination rather than to "sit as a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions."