By the time Lori Franchina retired in 2013, she had lodged more than 40 complaints of harassment, discrimination and retaliation with Providence Fire Department.
On Thursday, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a $700,000 jury award award in the lesbian firefighter’s favor after the city failed to act on those complaints.
The finding is significant in that makes room for LGBTQ people to pursue workplace harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
“The abuse Lori Franchina suffered at the hands of the Providence Fire Department is nothing short of abhorrent,” wrote Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson. “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.”
According to Thompson’s 60-page ruling, Franchina enjoyed four peaceful years at the North Main Street Fire Station, and she advanced quickly in the ranks to lieutenant.
But in 2006, an assignment with fellow firefighter Andre Ferro derailed her career. Ferro, who worked under Franchina, repeatedly hounded Franchina about her sexual orientation. While the two were dispatched on an emergency call, he offered to impregnate her.
“So incessant was the unprofessional chatter that Franchina was forced to tell Ferro on multiple occasions to stop talking because she was having difficulty hearing the dispatcher’s instructions,” the ruling states.
He later burst into a room while she undressed and refused to leave.
When a supervisor caught wind of Ferror’s harassing behavior, the supervisor moved to discipline Ferro. But male co-workers retaliated against Franchina, Thompson says.
Other firefighters began calling her epithets, and the cook started serving her food that made her ill.
The abuse continued, even when Franchina moved to another fire station. In one instance, colleagues refused her request to transport a man who had partially severed his head, and he died. In another, a co-worker flung the blood and brains of a suicide-attempt victim at her.
Franchina finally took disability leave in 2009, but the harassment continued when she returned to work. She left active duty the following year, but was required to come into the station part time where she was berated by male coworkers. Department chiefs finally told her to stop coming in altogether.
In 2011, she filed discrimination complaints with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She retired in 2013 with severe post-traumatic stress.
“Sticks and stones may break some bones, but harassment can hurt forever,” wrote Thompson.
The City of Providence did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Thursday’s ruling clears has legal ramifications for LGBTQ people filing harassment complaints. In 1999, in Higgins v. New Balance Athletic Shoe, Inc. the same court rejected the complaint of an employee claiming discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation under Title VII. (Title VII prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sex.)
In Franchina’s case, the court supported her “sex plus” claim. In her case, the “plus” is her sexual orientation.
That’s a major win for LGBTQ people filing discrimination complaints against employers, say advocates.
“This ruling removes the argument that anti-gay harassment gets a free pass under federal law in the First Circuit,” says GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders Legal Director Gary Buseck in a statement. “As long as the harassment is “at least in part” because of the employee’s sex, then the claim can proceed as a sex discrimination case.”
The ruling also solidifies protections for other groups, Buseck notes. If a company typically hires women, but declines to hire a women with young kids, the ruling may apply
Shannon Minter, legal director, National Center for Lesbian Rights, says the ruling signals a turning tide in the courts.
“In this case, the First Circuit has opened the door for other LGBT workers who are called disparaging names or otherwise harassed on the job to bring federal sex discrimination claims,” he said, in an email. “This is a major victory.”
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