A federal judge has allowed a former Bowling Green firefighter’s lawsuit against the city to go forward.
Jeffrey Queen worked for the Bowling Green Fire Department from 2011 to 2016, during which time he claims his colleagues disparaged his religious beliefs and made racist, sexist and homophobic remarks.
Queen filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the city and BGFD Capt. Dustin Rockrohr in 2016 alleging that he was subject to a hostile work environment based on his religion and gender, claiming he was on the receiving end of anti-gay slurs and harassed for being an atheist.
Queen’s lawsuit also contended his colleagues retaliated against him for reporting his complaints to Rockrohr, the BGFD’s human resources department and the city’s ethics hotline, and that his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act were violated when his superiors phoned him while he was on medical leave in 2016 to ask him why he was absent from work.
Attorneys for the city and Rockrohr filed a motion to dismiss the suit, arguing that Queen is not entitled to relief through the court system.
In a 14-page ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley allowed the allegation of hostile work environment based on religion and claims of retaliation to proceed to trial.
Queen claimed he was forced to participate in Bible study groups during dinner at the fire station, was told by a superior to “get right with Jesus” and received threats from two firefighters to burn down his house after acknowledging his atheism in 2016.
Attorneys for the city and Rockrohr have responded that Queen cannot prove he suffered unwanted religious harassment, arguing that the “jokes, pranks and teasing are all part of the fraternal environment at the fire department that Queen enjoyed and participated in,” according to McKinley’s order.
Several firefighters also stated that Queen told them he believed like they did and he attended a nondenominational church and Bible study outside of work, but McKinley found that Queen has made out a case for harassment based on religious grounds and that a jury should decide the merits of Queen’s claim.
Queen’s retaliation claim was allowed to stand as well.
The ex-firefighter reported that he complained to Rockrohr, his immediate superior, in 2012 about discriminatory treatment and offensive statements other firefighters made, and that Rockrohr advised Queen the following day to seek other employment, according to court records.
Queen claimed subsequent anonymous complaints to BGFD’s human resources department and the city’s ethics hotline were not investigated, and he continued to be harassed by his colleagues.
“A reasonable jury could find that the harassment and threats were in retaliation for his complaints regarding the workplace,” McKinley said in his ruling. “According to Queen, his work environment got so bad that he had to take a medical leave of absence and eventually forced him to resign.”
McKinley ruled that Rockrohr could not be held individually liable on the hostile work environment claim, but may be held liable on the retaliation claim, stating that a jury could possibly find that Rockrohr did not act in good faith in handling Queen’s complaints.
A claim that Queen was subjected to a hostile work environment based on his gender was dismissed. Queen, who is married to a woman and has a child with her, alleged that he was often ridiculed by co-workers who suggested he was gay.
McKinley’s ruling dismissing that count cited prior decisions from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit that held that the Kentucky Civil Rights Act does not protect individuals from discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Queen also failed to offer arguments supporting his claim that his Family and Medical Leave Act rights were violated during his time on leave, McKinley found, dismissing that claim.