U.S. First Circuit - The FindLaw 1st Circuit Court of Appeals News and Information Blog

Providence Loses Appeal in Firefighter's Gender Discrimination Case

The gender discrimination case of Lori Franchina against the Providence, Rhode Island fire department is not for the faint of heart.

Despite seemingly being on a fast track to a management position within the department, Franchina's career trajectory seemed to be abruptly cut short after she complained of retaliation for talking to a superior about another firefighter's immature behavior. After she was questioned about the incident, she began encountering severe retaliation as well as gender discrimination.

Franchina experienced, using the court's own words, an abhorrent and vile hostile working environment. And according to a jury, and both the district and appellate courts, the city and department failed to do their jobs, resulting in a nearly $1 million award (inclusive of attorney fees).

Unappealing Facts on Appeal

Given the sheer volume and severity of the harassment Franchina experienced, it is not surprising that the appellate court refused to disturb the jury and lower court's judgment. In addition to enduring countless pejoratives cast directly at her and behind her back, testimony revealed that the department cook was spiking her meals so as to make her sick. And if that wasn't bad enough, those intent on retaliating against Franchina refused to follow her commands when out in the field, resulting in needless suffering of victims. The appellate decision even tells of an injured individual whom Franchina was dispatched to the scene to help that may have died as a result of her co-workers' (and subordinates') insubordination.

Unappealing Argument on Appeal

As the circuit court explained, the city's arguments all lacked merit. In challenging the Title VII discrimination claim, the city rested upon a nearly insignificant distinction between the words sex and gender. However, the court was not having any of that. Additionally, the city tried to overturn the establish precedent that allows hostile work environment claims to reach beyond the statute of limitations period to establish the hostile work environment claim.

And on top of these failing legal arguments, the city made a last ditch effort to have the damages reduced or reassessed. The city argued that the plaintiff's failure to present expert testimony on the calculation of the present value of the front pay she sought rendered the amount awarded appealable.

The court concluded by doing what court's do best, pass judgment:

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.

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