A former Rhode Island firefighter who claimed that colleagues discriminated against her because of her sexual orientation and gender was awarded more than $800,000 in federal court Monday.
Lori Franchina filed a civil-rights lawsuit four years ago in the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island against the City of Providence and the local firefighters’ union. Franchina is a lesbian, the lawsuit states, and “her male colleagues subjected her to such intense, constant, and prolific mistreatment that she eventually was left in multiple situations in which her safety was compromised.”
The lawsuit describes Franchina suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the harassment.
She claimed that her multiple complaints to superiors and her union prompted “swift and severe retaliation,” even as she rose to the rank of lieutenant.
“They chose not to protect her,” Franchina’s lawyer, John T. Martin, told the jury, the Providence Journal reported. “If those rules don’t protect Lori, they don’t protect anybody.”
During the trial, officials representing the city said Franchina didn’t file a complaint with its Equal Employment Opportunity officer and that she had a reputation for being difficult to work with, the Associated Press reported.
Franchina, now retired, began working for the fire department in 2002. She claimed problems began for her in 2005, when the acting lieutenant at the time gave her the nickname “Frangina,” an allusion to female genitalia.
Her lawsuit describes numerous embarrassing — and dangerous — incidents, including firefighters publicly displaying a list of things they didn’t like about her, not helping her when responding to medical emergencies, and insubordination.
The lawsuit describes one male firefighter declaring “normally, I don’t like working with women” and saying: “Are you a lesbian, or are you just doing everybody?”
According to the lawsuit, he also told her, “I’m a lesbian, we like the same thing.” During their last shift together, he pinched his nipple and loudly yelled “my lesbian lover.”
That firefighter was fired in 2006 for harassing Franchina, but he eventually got his job back through a grievance procedure, the Providence Journal reported.
The lawsuit alleged that Franchina’s complaints resulted in retaliation and harassment over the years that became worse.
Franchina claimed that in 2009, a firefighter cornered and yelled at her in the Firefighters Hall; when she asked the man’s lieutenant to intervene, he replied, “I’m not your f—— babysitter.”
“It had an effect almost every day,” Franchina told CBS affiliate WPRI. “It breaks you. It wears you down. You still try to come to work every day and do your job well.”
Franchina has been on injured-on-duty sick leave since 2012. Martin, her lawyer, said Franchina suffers from depression and has to undergo daily therapy, according to the Journal.
The city countered that Franchina was the problem, describing her as abrasive and arrogant.
“That’s what it’s about, Lori Franchina being unable to get along with her supervisors, subordinates, or fellow firefighters,” city solicitor Kevin McHugh said, according to the Providence Journal.
According to the newspaper, McHugh “attributed her PTSD diagnosis to the dangerousness of working on a rescue crew. He accused her of escalating friction with patients and police at emergency scenes.”
“There’s really nothing in the evidence to show that anything happened to Lori Franchina based on gender or sex,” McHugh said.
McHugh, the Journal reported, also told jurors:
that the department responded to Franchina’s complaints by altering its practices and repeatedly relaying the message that the firefighters needed to work as a team. He cited incidents in which Franchina’s actions made emergency calls much more stressful for the mothers of young children who were sick or injured.
A jury reached the verdict after a two-week trial, AP reported. The reward included $545,000 for lost wages, $161,000 for emotional damages and $100,000 for punitive damages, the Journal reported.
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza told WPRI that the city plans to appeal the verdict.