Court upholds gender-bias ruling against RI city, firefighters union
The court upheld a jury’s 2016 findings that firefighter Lori Franchina had endured harassment and retaliation and that the city had failed to take action
By Katie Mulvaney
The Providence Journal
BOSTON — "Sticks and stones may break some bones, but harassment can hurt forever" begins the appeals court ruling upholding a ruling that the Providence Fire Department and the firefighters union had relentlessly subjected a lieutenant to name-calling and other harassment and discrimination based on her gender and sexual orientation.
A three-judge panel from the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday in favor of Lori Franchina, a fire lieutenant who rose quickly through the ranks after joining it in 2002.
The decision, written by Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson, upholds a jury's findings after a 2016 trial that Franchina had endured pervasive harassment and retaliation and that the city had failed to take prompt and appropriate action to address her complaints. The jury awarded Franchina $806,000, but U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell struck $100,000 in punitive damages against the city because they are not permitted against a municipality under federal law. McConnell also awarded Franchina $184,000 in legal fees.
A federal judge said the the abuse lesbian firefighter Lori Franchina suffered at the hands of the Providence Fire Department "is nothing short of abhorrent." https://t.co/VQwNDTecVd via @JEMoreau pic.twitter.com/U1RvqW4Yj4— NBC Out (@NBCOUT) January 30, 2018
"The abuse Lori Franchina suffered at the hands of the Providence Fire Department is nothing short of abhorrent and, as this case demonstrates, employers should be cautioned that turning a blind eye to blatant discrimination does not generally fare well under anti-discrimination laws like Title VII," Thompson wrote in a strongly worded 60-page ruling chastising the department for its treatment of Franchina. Title VII is a federal law barring employment discrimination based on protected characteristics such as gender and making it unlawful to retaliate against employees who raise challenge work practices.
The offenses included cursing at and berating Franchina, who is a lesbian; spitting and flinging blood and brain matter at her; and shoving her, the ruling states, recounting testimony at trial. The ruling faults the city for its "attempts to trivialize the abuse inflicted upon Franchina ... by giving it short shrift in its brief" appealing the jury's award.
City solicitor Kevin F. McHugh at trial cast Franchina as rude, confrontational, aggressive and abrupt. She saw matters strictly as black and white, he said.
Numerous witnesses at trial, however, testified to disparities and harassment faced by female employees of the department, the ruling states.
One of the lead instigators, according to the ruling, was Andre Ferro, a firefighter with a history of sexually harassing women. Ferro was fired in December 2006 after a hearing in which he was found to have harassed Franchina. He was later reinstated.
More recently, Ferro was fired in June for making racist comments while responding to a call to assist an elderly African-American woman suffering from consistent nosebleeds. Ferro was accused of suggesting to the woman that she should stop eating so much fried chicken.
Franchina was diagnosed with severe PTSD due to constant mistreatment. She has been on tax-free, injured-on-duty status since 2013.
"The City of Providence remains committed to maintaining a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination," said Victor Morente, a spokesman for Mayor Jorge Elorza, in an email Thursday evening. "The City takes any complaint seriously and investigates each matter. With regard to the case at hand, the City will not be appealing the recent ruling."
Franchina's lawyer could not be reached late Thursday. Firefighters' union president Paul Doughty did not immediately return a phone call.
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