An Eagan firefighter is suing the city and the fire chief alleging that he was demoted from his position as a battalion chief because he had recently revealed he is gay.
Dan Benson, an 18-year veteran of the Eagan Fire Department, filed a civil suit in Dakota County in early April, which was then moved April 26 to federal court. Benson claims he was discriminated against by Chief Mike Scott because he didn’t fit the department’s unspoken norms for gender and sexual orientation and that his rights under the Constitution and Minnesota law were violated. Benson is seeking unspecified compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages and legal fees.
“It’s incredible that in 2017 this type of conduct could occur,” said Paul Applebaum, Benson’s attorney. “The worst part of it is the department’s explanation doesn’t square with the letter that the chief handed to Dan Benson when he was demoted.”
The city issued a news release Thursday denying any discrimination. It attributes Benson’s job change to “reorganization, and ultimately fewer leadership positions.” The reorganization included having every staff member reapply and interview for their jobs.
“Our decision was based on the interview and past work product — it wasn’t based on anything but that,” Scott said. “I was shocked that somebody would accuse me of something like this.”
The suggestion that he’s anti-gay is “particularly hurtful,” Scott said, since he has a gay family member and friends and is “very supportive” of them.
Benson, a paid, on-call firefighter, began working for the department in the late ‘90s and soon obtained awards and promotions, according to his lawsuit. He had been private about his sexual orientation throughout his career and “did not openly come out and broadcast that he was gay,” the lawsuit says.
Last fall, he was serving as a battalion chief when all staff members were informed they would have to reapply for their jobs. At the meeting where he was told about the reapplication process, attendees were asked whether they had significant others as part of a getting-to-know-each-other activity.
Benson replied that he was married to a man named Greg and the pair had a son and two exchange students they considered their children, according to the lawsuit.
Benson interviewed for the job again, and soon after, Scott told Benson he wasn’t being reappointed as a battalion chief but could stay on as a regular firefighter.
A November 2016 letter from Scott lists seven reasons for Benson’s downgrade, including using his personal cellphone for department business, missing trainings and posting videos online from an emergency scene, which is against department policy.
Identifying those issues was part of the reapplication and reorganization process, Scott said, and there is documentation to back them up.
Applebaum called the letter’s reasoning “ridiculous.” Downsizing or reorganization weren’t mentioned in the letter, Applebaum said, and Benson’s position wasn’t eliminated.
Benson responded to Scott, writing that the concerns mentioned were fabricated, insignificant, or never communicated to him as problematic — and alleged that Scott was actually demoting him because of his sexuality. Benson was replaced with a heterosexual battalion chief. No other ranks were re-interviewed and no one else was demoted, the lawsuit said.
“They put someone else in there that had less experience and less qualifications than Dan,” Applebaum said.
But Scott said every paid on-call appointed position was reinterviewed, resulting in seven firefighters moving into new officer positions. Several went back to being firefighters, he said.
Scott said it’s not unusual for paid, on-call staff to be reappointed to a position, Scott said.
“We still value Dan,” Scott said. “He has every right to challenge the appointment process — I just hope that he does it respectfully.”
Benson stayed on in Eagan as a “black hat,” or lowest-ranking, firefighter and still works there.
“He didn’t quit, which I was amazed by,” Applebaum said. “It’s really hard for him but he’s sticking with it.”
The case is pending in district court.