Action Just the Latest in Long String of Retaliation

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) filed a complaint against the District of Columbia and officials of the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (F&EMS), on behalf of an 18 year-career fire department captain, and whistleblower, who has been wrongfully ordered to submit to a psychological examination.

Captain Vanessa Coleman has been steadily retaliated against since March 2008, stemming from fallout of the Mt. Pleasant apartment fire in Washington, D.C. Despite a history beginning as a fire cadet in 1990, with subsequent promotions to Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain, and having annual performance reviews greater than “satisfactory,” Coleman has been singled out by department officials and made into a scapegoat for the problems stemming from the fire. At the fire, Coleman was directed away from the basement of the apartment building to the third floor. This diversion was later found to be of great importance, as fire officials now believe the fire originated in the basement.

In the months following the Mt. Pleasant fire, then-Battalion chief John Lee, who ordered Coleman and her crew to the third floor, has retired.

“The use of psychological testing to discipline or punish employees is something we’d expect from the Bush administration, not the Fenty administration,” stated Richard Condit, GAP Senior Counsel, and co-counsel to Coleman. “The mayor and the city counsel need to look into this issue.”

The complaint filed today explains how the disclosures of Captain Coleman are protected under the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act, and how, despite those protections, Coleman has been subjected to retaliatory, prohibited personnel actions. The complaint also seeks to secure Coleman’s due process rights, in essence stopping the ordering of this unjust examination until preliminary steps have been taken.

“Retaliation of this type is clearly prohibited by D.C. whistleblower laws,” stated GAP General Counsel Karen Gray, co-counsel to Coleman. “The fire department is sending a terrible message to those in its ranks – if you witness wrongdoing, keep it to yourself.”

In addition to F&EMS, parties named to the complaint include Dennis Rubin, F&EMS Chief (in an official capacity), and Assistant F&EMS Chief Brian Lee (individual capacity).

The retaliation against Coleman that has ensued since the filing is a laundry list of unacceptable actions which include: citations, a suspension, failure to support her authority as a captain, stripped duties, and a transfer. In July, Coleman received a notice that she was to report for a psychological evaluation, ordered by Assistant Chief Brian Lee. Upon reporting for the exam, she requested legal counsel, but was denied. Unwilling to submit to the exam under the conditions presented to her, Coleman was directed not to go back to work and to take sick leave until she was able to take a rescheduled psychological evaluation.

Months later, in August, Coleman and GAP staff met with F&EMS officials to discuss the order. At such meeting, according to a memo written from EMS Deputy General Counsel, Thelma Chichester:

The Department has offered to hold the pending Order for Cpt. Coleman to take the Fitness for Duty Examination as well as any administrative action which resulted from her failure to comply with a direct Order in abeyance pending the conclusion of the investigation into the charges of discrimination made by Cpt. Coleman.

After reaching this agreement, Coleman was finally allowed to return to work. Shortly after this meeting, Coleman received a notice that she was being charged with insubordination for failing to take the “fitness-for-duty” exam, as ordered.

On November 20, Coleman was contacted via telephone by an officer from the Police and Firefighters Clinic indicating that she was to report for a psychological evaluation tomorrow, November 26. On November 21, GAP filed a letter with Fire and EMS detailing the illegal nature of the order to require a fitness for duty examination including a psychological assessment. Despite the letter and attempts at communicating with the Department, Fire and EMS officials refuse to withdraw this order.