Firefighter awarded $11M in sexual harassment, gender discrimination suit

Dena Lewis-Bystrzycki had alleged she was passed over for a promotion and retaliated against for reporting misbehavior

By Zak Koeske
The Daily Southtown

COUNTRY CLUB HILLS, Ill. — A jury has awarded more than $11 million in damages to a Country Club Hills firefighter who sued the city over alleged gender discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation, according to a court order.

Dena Lewis-Bystrzycki, who filed suit against the city in 2012, had alleged she was passed over for a promotion and retaliated against for reporting misbehavior. She later amended her complaint to include allegations that firefighters regularly watched pornography at the fire station.

On Monday, after more than two weeks of trial testimony and a couple hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Lewis-Bystrzycki, her lawyer said.

The 12-member jury found in favor of the firefighter on all three of her claims — gender discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation — and awarded her a combined $11,213,000, a copy of the judge’s signed order shows.

“We hope that this verdict will encourage women in the fire service to stand up and speak out against discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation and to break through the fire wall that exists in this and many other departments,” her attorney Dana Kurtz said.

Lewis-Bystrzycki, a member of the department since 1998 who has been on paid administrative leave since 2015, said she was thankful to the jury for “seeing through the cover up to find the truth.”

Her $11 million-plus award is broken down into $8 million for emotional harm and mental suffering; $2 million for compensatory damages; $1,085,000 for lost future earnings; $78,000 for time, earnings and salaries lost; and $50,000 for counseling expenses.

Representatives from Country Club Hills did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Judge Brigid Mary McGrath initially entered a default judgment against Country Club Hills on Oct. 2 for its repeated failure to comply with court orders, but reconsidered her sanctions at the city’s request and allowed the trial to proceed.

Despite rescinding her most “drastic” sanction — default judgment — McGrath still instructed the jury it could draw adverse inferences from the city’s destruction of digital evidence and its failure to adequately search documents on its computers. She had previously ordered Country Club Hills to reimburse Lewis-Bystrzycki for attorney fees and costs incurred to hire a forensic expert.

An additional trial on “equitable relief” is scheduled for Nov. 6, according to the judge’s order. Kurtz said that proceeding would determine the amount Lewis-Bystrzycki will be entitled to for the loss of her pension and attorneys fees, which she estimated at $3 to $4 million.

Copyright 2018 The Daily Southtown

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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