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Firefighter's whistleblower and retaliation charges reinstated

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A federal appeals court on Friday reinstated whistleblower and retaliation charges filed by a District of Columbia firefighter, who said she said she was unfairly disciplined for following inappropriate orders in fighting a major fire and eventually terminated after she complained.

When Capt. Vanessa Coleman, a 17-year veteran of the D.C. Fire Department, responded to a major fire in March 2008, she told her fire company to inspect the building’s basement, as required by the department’s standard operating guidelines, according to Friday’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Vanessa Coleman v. District of Columbia et al.

However the battalion chief ordered her to proceed directly to the building’s third floor. It turned out that failure to complete the basement check “proved fatal” to the department’s failure to control the fire, court records show.

In April 2008, the battalion chief issued Ms. Coleman a citation for not following the guidelines, and she protested the charge in a memorandum to the fire chief. The following month it was recommended she be suspended for 24 duty hours.

In July 2008, within 48 hours after she complained about her suspension to the fire chief, she was ordered to undergo a fitness evaluation. Ms. Coleman reported for the evaluation, but refused to sign the requisite consent form because it required her to attest her participation was voluntary.

She was subsequently found guilty of two counts of insubordination and terminated in October 2009.

Ms. Coleman filed charges in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C., charging violations of the District of Columbia Whistleblower Protection Act. The court granted the fire department summary judgment dismissing the case, and Ms. Coleman appealed.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit reinstated her case in a 2-1 ruling. “A reasonable jury could conclude based on the summary judgment record that one or more of Coleman’s individual complaints qualified as protected under the (District of Columbia) Whistleblower Act, that Coleman established a prima facie case of retaliation as to those complaints, and that the department failed to rebut the prima facie case with clear and convincing evidence of a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for its actions,” said the ruling.

The dissenting opinion said, “This is an unusual case — one in which the court’s interpretation of the (D.C. Whistleblower Act) makes a virtue of insubordination.”

Earlier this week, an appeals court held that two whistleblowers who had already won a jury verdict in which they had successfully charged State Farm Fire & Casualty Co. with submitting a single false Hurricane Katrina claim are entitled to further discovery to uncover possible additional violations of the False Claims Act.