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September 28, 2012

Former D.C. fire captain loses case

A former #DC #fire captain has lost her #legal challenge, in a case with roots in one of Washington, D.C.'s most notorious fires.

In a highly detailed 38-page opinion issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lambert dismissed the claims of Vanessa Coleman, who said D.C. Fire and Emergency Services officials retaliated against her and violated her free-speech rights.

An African-American with some 20 years on the job, Coleman was serving as a captain on March 12, 2008. That night, a fire broke out in a high-rise apartment building in the city's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. It left some 200 people homeless, and a lot of questions in its wake.

Coleman says that upon arriving on scene, she began a check of the basement before being interrupted by the operations commander at the scene, Battalion Fire Chief John Lee, who diverted her towards the third floor. Judge Lamberth noted that "later investigation revealed that FEMS’ failure to check the basement first had been fatal to the department’s efforts to control the fire, which had in fact begun in the basement."

Many disputes then ensued, as the department tried to figure out what happened and as then-Capt. Coleman made public her position. Chief Lee subsequently accepted an official reprimand. Coleman did not; she fought on.

Some of Coleman's public comments were incendiary, and her bosses ordered her to undergo a pscyhological evaluation. She called that retaliation and refused. The department fired her in October 2009.

Judge Lamberth goes carefully through each element of the complaint; illustratively, he reasoned:

"Defendants claim that they acted in response to plainitff’s erratic, paranoid, and otherwise worrisome behavior – as manifested in the 'barrage' of dozens communications and memoranda which plaintiff documents in her filings in this case. These filings, as well as plaintiff’s other behavior, gave the defendants legitimate concern about plaintiff’s mental state, and her ability to safely command her company."




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"Suits & Sentences" is a legal affairs blog written by Michael Doyle, a reporter for McClatchy's Washington Bureau. He was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Yale Law School, where he earned a Master of Studies in Law; he also earned a Masters in Government from The Johns Hopkins University with a thesis on the Freedom of Information Act. He teaches journalism as an adjunct instructor at The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.

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