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Facts drove award in lesbian firefighter's bias case but precedent far from clear

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The jury weighed the facts, according to labor law experts, and awarded $800,000 to a lesbian former firefighter in Providence, Rhode Island, in a sexual orientation bias suit, in line with typical seven-figure awards in discrimination cases.

But, far from a slam-dunk, it took four years to bring the suit to trial and appeals are pending, the experts point out, which sends a less clear message to workers in similar situations.

Former firefighter Lori Franchina sued in U.S. District Court in Providence in 2012 alleging “intense, constant and prolific mistreatment” because she is a lesbian, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder, according to court records.

Ms. Franchina, who joined the fire department in 2002, alleged she was subjected to years of insults about her sexual orientation, given an obscene-sounding nickname, faced insubordination and disrespect and was physically assaulted by another firefighter. She alleged the harassment endangered her safety and that of victims she was helping, but her repeated complaints were ignored.

Last week, she was awarded more than $800,000 in damages by a federal jury for gender, sexual orientation and disability discrimination, as well as retaliation she suffered from male colleagues and city and union officials who failed to respond to her complaint.

“The facts drive these cases,” said Gerald L. Maatman Jr., a partner at Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P. in Chicago, “and here was a situation where the jury thought that facts in front of them demonstrated that a person's rights were violated. Most risk managers, most (human resources) professionals working in America these days recognize that and have extensive policies and practices prohibiting discrimination and indicating to employees that if they have a problem to let HR know so the issue can be investigated and remediated where necessary.”

A spokeswoman for the Providence Mayor's Office said in an email that the city intends to appeal the ruling, adding that it “remains committed to maintaining a workplace that is free from harassment and discrimination.”

Marcia McCormick, director of the William C. Wefel Center for Employment Law, at the St. Louis University School of Law, said in an email that she does not believe “the verdict shows any major changes in workplace lawsuits.”

“This case was simply the application of clear law to a pretty terrible situation,” Ms. McCormick wrote. “It may show others in similar situations that winning a discrimination case is possible, but considering that this case took four years to reach a verdict, and the department plans to appeal, which will add at least another year delay and could change the outcome, that message may not be very strong.”

Neither Mr. Maatman nor Ms. McCormick expressed surprise at the size of the award.

“Employment discrimination tends in certain situations to spike to seven figure awards,” Mr. Maatman said. “The facts of the case generally drive the results in terms of sizes of verdicts.”