Former R.I. FF who won gender harassment case sues over denial of accidental disability benefits
Ex-Providence Lt. Lori Franchina says she is in intensive outpatient psychiatric treatment and unable to work, putting her near poverty level
The Providence Journal
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The former Providence Fire Department lieutenant who won $706,000 in damages against the city for persistent harassment based on her gender and sexual orientation is suing the city again, this time for refusing to award her accidental disability benefits based on the emotional fallout from the workplace abuse.
Lori Franchina, who a jury in 2016 awarded $806,000 in damages due to the gender-based harassment, sued the city Monday in U.S. District Court challenging the denial of the accidental disability benefits. ( U.S. District Court Chief Judge John J. McConnell Jr. later reduced the award to $706,000 and awarded Franchina $183,842 in legal fees.)
Franchina, of West Warwick, says she is unable to work in any capacity and is in long-term intensive outpatient psychiatric treatment all day five days a week and has had multiple inpatient stays. She is unable to sleep, has night terrors and, at times, is suicidal, the suit says.
She now earns ordinary disability benefits, which leave her near poverty level, when she is entitled to accidental disability benefits, which would allow her to enjoy a higher quality of life, the suit says.
She accuses the city of discriminating against her based on her disability and gender and of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as well as the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
According to the lawsuit, Franchina applied for accidental disability benefits in January 2011, alleging that she had been left permanently disabled by the workplace harassment and discrimination, and other on-the-job incidents.
The Providence Retirement Board denied her application, despite “overwhelming” medical evidence establishing the disability, the suit says. She petitioned the state Supreme Court for a review, but was denied.
Franchina in July filed her first federal lawsuit, a high-profile case that accused her male colleagues of harassing, disrespecting and discriminating against her based on her gender and because she’s a lesbian. She complained that the city failed to deter the misconduct, despite being aware of it. The city denied wrongdoing.
In April 2013, the Fire Department submitted an application for retirement with ordinary disability benefits on Franchina’s behalf. That application was granted that December.
During the trial into her workplace harassment claims in 2016, two treating doctors delivered unrebutted testimony that she was left permanently and totally disabled by the harassment and other work-related incidents, the suit says. A jury ruled in her favor, awarding damages that received widespread media coverage and made headlines nationally.
In February 2019, Franchina petitioned the board to re-open her application for accidental disability pension benefits. Hearings were held that May and September in which Franchina presented evidence that her disability was brought on in the workplace. In January 2020, the board refused to re-open the petition.
Franchina faults the board for “routinely and customarily” granting accidental disability benefits to members of the Fire Department who suffer physical disabilities, as opposed to psychological disabilities. She alleges that the board’s refusal to re-open the application was discriminatory and retaliatory.
In upholding the jury’s verdict that Franchina had been relentlessly harassed by the Providence Fire Department and the firefighters union based on her gender and sexual orientation, a three-judge federal appeals court panel wrote “Sticks and stones may break some bones, but harassment can hurt forever”.
“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,” Judge O. Rogeriee Thompson wrote in a 60-page ruling chastising the department for its treatment of Franchina.
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. The ruling criticized 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 had cast Franchina as rude, confrontational, aggressive and abrupt. She saw matters strictly as black and white, he said.
A spokesman said the City doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation.