A former lifeguard at a D.C. public pool was awarded $3.5 million in damages Friday by a federal jury that determined she had been sexually harassed by a supervisor and then fired in retaliation for complaining about the conduct.
The jury also delivered an unusual “addendum” of recommendations urging the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to institute training to prevent sexual harassment of employees and to better handle complaints when they arise. The jury also requested an investigation of the harassment. Chief U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, who presided over the week-long civil trial in the District’s federal court, said he had never seen a jury make such a request before.
The suit was brought by Carmen Jean-Baptiste, a 43-year-old District resident who began working as a lifeguard at the Takoma Aquatic Center in Northwest Washington for $13.50 an hour in April or May 2006. Shortly after starting her job, Jean-Baptiste alleged that her supervisor, Rodney Weaver, began to harass her by asking her on dates and whether she “had a man,” the suit said. When Jean-Baptiste rebuffed the supervisor’s advances, the harassment intensified, the lifeguard’s attorneys alleged.
The attorneys said the manager began making references to Jean-Baptiste’s genitalia and said he “wanted some of that” for his birthday. He also stroked her hair and made repeated sexual advances and comments, they said.
Jean-Baptiste reported the behavior to a half-dozen supervisors while she worked at the pool, but the harassment did not stop, according to the suit. Shortly after filing a written complaint in October 2006, Jean-Baptiste was fired. Her attorneys alleged that the firing was retaliation for reporting Weaver’s conduct.
Weaver, who works for another D.C. pool, could not be reached for comment. Attorneys for the D.C. Attorney General’s Office, which defended the city in the lawsuit, declined to comment as they left the courtroom. In court papers, the attorneys denied that Weaver had sexually harassed Jean-Baptiste and said that the city had taken appropriate action to address her complaints.
In reaching its verdict and awarding $3.5 million in damages for pain and suffering, the jury felt “embarrassed” by how D.C. supervisors had handled Jean-Baptiste’s situation, according to the jury’s foreman, John C. Henry. “They ignored, stalled and delayed any action on her complaints,” said Henry, a former news editor at the Associated Press.
Lamberth will decide on what back pay Jean-Baptiste is owed and whether to order the District to rehire her.
Jean-Baptiste, who has taught swimming and worked as a lifeguard at private pools since being fired, declined to comment.
“Carmen has waited six years to find justice, and she has finally received it and is looking forward to changes at the Department of Parks and Recreation so this doesn’t happen to any other employee,” her attorneys, Jon C. Goldfarb and Abby Morrow Richardson, said in a statement.