Ohio funeral board head sues member alleging sexism, threats

Published 8:59 am Monday, February 1, 2016

COLUMBUS (AP) — The director of Ohio’s funeral board alleges in a federal lawsuit that a board member appointed by Gov. John Kasich has relentlessly harassed her and treats her differently because she is a woman.

The civil-rights lawsuit, filed Thursday, seeks monetary damages and is the latest turn in a feud between director Vanessa Niekamp and Tommy Taneff, a member of the Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors that licenses and regulates funeral professionals.

Niekamp lodged a series of largely unsuccessful complaints to state agencies this summer accusing Taneff of harassment since he joined the board in December 2014. He has sought to have her investigated by the state Inspector General and the Attorney General’s Office.

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Taneff called an unsuccessful vote in October to suspend Niekamp, alleging she altered public records and practiced law without authorization. Taneff has sought disciplinary action against Niekamp at the Ohio Supreme Court over the law practice allegations, the lawsuit said.

Taneff said Friday that he had not seen the suit and could not comment.

The pair’s primary disagreement surrounds findings of a September 2014 investigation by The Columbus Dispatch that the industry-dominated funeral board was failing to proactively identify cases in which funeral homes failed to deliver services to consumers who had paid for them, sometimes in full, before death.

Representatives of the prepaid funeral industry have accused the board of failing to identify fraud and take action against bad companies, arguing the lack of action over the past decade has cost legitimate licensed funeral directors their jobs and hurt consumers.

In her lawsuit, Niekamp alleges Taneff’s approach to the disagreement has been inappropriate; that he’s treated her differently than he treats male board employees or the male director of another state board on which he sits; and that his actions have created a hostile work environment. She describes Taneff as using “a derogatory slang term regarding female anatomy” and taking an attitude “that a man can perform the job better than (Niekamp) who is a woman.”

The suit also names the board and 15 John Does on the board “with information relative to the allegations” as defendants. It seeks $200,000 combined in compensatory and punitive damages and attorney’s fees.

Niekamp’s lawyer in the case is former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann, a Democrat forced to resign in 2008 after admitting an extramarital affair with a subordinate. He’s now in private practice in Cleveland.