Retired firefighter Lt. Lori Franchina was awarded over $800,000 in lost wages and damages in federal court on Monday. In a lawsuit filed over four years ago against the city of Providence, Rhode Island, and the local firefighter’s union, the firefighter claimed that she was ruthlessly and consistently harassed by co-workers because she was a woman and a lesbian.
According to court documents, Franchina suffered from “intense, constant, and prolific mistreatment” while on the job due to her gender and sexual orientation. The lawsuit described several embarrassing and sometimes dangerous situations, such as listing things colleagues didn’t like about her, insubordination, and refusing to assist her when responding to emergencies.
As a result of the harassment, the Rhode Island firefighter developed post-traumatic stress disorder. She went on sick leave in 2012 and had to undergo daily therapy. Lt. Franchina officially retired from the department in 2013.
Despite reaching the level of lieutenant, numerous complaints to superiors and the union mostly went ignored, and at times, she was met with retaliation for speaking up.
“They chose not to protect her,” Franchina’s lawyer, John T. Martin, said during the trial. “If those rules don’t protect Lori, they don’t protect anybody.”
The city contends Franchina should have filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity officer and failed to do so. They also claim Franchina was difficult to work with, coarse, and conceited.
“That’s what it’s about, Lori Franchina being unable to get along with her supervisors, subordinates, or fellow firefighters,” argued city solicitor Kevin McHugh. “There’s really nothing in the evidence to show that anything happened to Lori Franchina based on gender or sex.”
Franchina started with the fire department in 2002, but the harassment did not start until around 2005. The lesbian firefighter claimed that the lieutenant in charge at the time began using the nickname “Frangina” when referring to her.
One other male firefighter made several disparaging remarks about her sexual orientation as well as describing himself as a lesbian. During one shift, the firefighter grabbed his nipple and called Franchina his “lesbian lover.” For the harassment, the firefighter lost his job but was able to get it back after filing a grievance.
In 2009, another firefighter backed her into a corner and began yelling at her. Franchina requested the man’s superior to get involved, but he refused, stating she needed to take care of herself.
Yet another incident in 2009 may have cost someone’s life. While trying to save a person from dying in an emergency situation, Lt. Franchina requested the assistance of colleagues to move the patient, but they refused. As distressed family members screamed and helplessly looked on, the patient ultimately died.
“It had an effect almost every day,” said Franchina. “It breaks you. It wears you down. You still try to come to work every day and do your job well.”
Franchina does not blame the entire fire department, only a select few firefighters. Only one co-worker, Andre Ferro, was named in her lawsuit. Ferro was disciplined for a 2009 harassment incident, but no other action was taken by the department, and he remains on active duty.
After a two-week trial, a jury granted Franchina $545,000 in lost wages, $161,000 for emotional damages, and $100,000 for punitive damages. The city of Providence intends to appeal the decision.
“We’ll be appealing the case and this will ultimately be decided sometime down the road,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said. “For now, we’re letting the legal process run its course and we’ll wait and see what the appeals court actually decides.”
Lt. Lori Franchina hopes the court’s verdict will prompt the city to make changes in how it handles gender and sexual harassment. She anticipates the verdict will help ensure employers across the country properly follow Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids workplace discrimination.
[Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]