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Virginia firefighter sues employer after allegedly losing his job to anti-gay discrimination

Scott Philips-Gartner claims the city did nothing to respond to his complaints.

Firefighter in Virginia sues employer after allegedly losing his job to anti-gay discrimination. (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)
Firefighter in Virginia sues employer after allegedly losing his job to anti-gay discrimination. (PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images)

Scott Philips-Gartner of Norfolk, Virginia tendered his resignation from the Norfolk Fire Department one year ago, after a 27-year career. He said it was because he was allegedly about to be fired for being gay.

Now, he’s suing the city.

A U.S. Navy veteran with war-time service, Gartner started working for Norfolk back in 1991 as a telecommunications officer, and was promoted several times in the years that followed, first to firefighter cardiac technician, then to Assistant Fire Marshall for the city. He was also a senior member of the Norfolk Bomb Squad. But as his complaint details, his career took a sudden, inexplicable downturn after he married his longtime partner in October 2014.

Gartner said he began to hear anti-gay comments form his superiors. Battalion Chief Roger Burris allegedly mocked Gartner for his sexual orientation. “In December 2015, Chief Burris verbally attacked Gartner’s sexuality during an open staff meeting by asking ‘Where is Ms. Gartner?’ which prompted other coworkers to laugh,” the suit offers as an example.

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Gartner filed complaints about these incidents. He had also written a letter defending one of the female employees, Karen Barnes, who’d also claimed she had experienced gender discrimination by Burris. According to the complaint, it was Chief Ronnie Mann, a good friend of Burris’, who was charged with investigating the complaints against him.

It is unclear that anything ever came of these complaints, so Gartner and Barnes took their concerns to the city auditor, noting they had experienced further retaliation for the original complaints they’d filed.

The harassment continued well into July 2016.

That month, the complaint alleges, “Chief Burris said that he was going to place Gartner ‘in the middle of a large crowd of demonstrators holding up a sign,’ implying that he wished he could set Gartner up to be attacked by protestors that opposed homosexual marriage.”

Then, in March of 2017, Gartner was suddenly demoted. He was stripped entirely of his police powers, his duties as an IT administrator, his use of Norfolk city vehicles, his firearm, his computer, and his cell phone. The complaint claims that he was reassigned to a temporary facility miles from his usual office “with little to no job duties.” Two weeks later, his request for routine bomb squad training was likewise denied and he was also ordered to retire his service dog.

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By November, Gartner learned Fire Chief Jeffrey Wise was planning to terminate him. He instead put in for his retirement, ending his career with the department this past January. He is 55 years old. According to Gartner’s attorney, Barry Montgomery, the harassment and demotions “disrupted his whole life.”

Gartner filed his suit in federal court, reflecting the multiple grievances he had also filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Neither the city nor the fire department was willing to comment when asked by The Virginian-Pilot, calling it a personnel matter.

In December of 2016, the city of Norfolk began protecting municipal employees from anti-gay discrimination, and the city council also passed a citywide law protecting LGBTQ workers the following summer. Neither, however, seemed to do anything to ameliorate the retaliation Gartner experienced during that time.

Virginia remains one of 26 states with no explicit protections for LGBTQ workers.