Providence firefighter wins sexual harassment suit against department

Providence Fire Lt. Lori Franchina outside U.S. District Court after winning her gender discrimination and sexual harassment suit against the city. (Photo: Steph Machado | WPRI 12)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A federal jury sided with a former Providence firefighter Monday in a gender discrimination and sexual harassment case against the city.

The panel awarded Lt. Lori Franchina a total of $806,000, which includes emotional and punitive damages, plus “future wages” she says she could have earned if she hadn’t retired early.

Franchina, who retired in 2013, filed suit in 2012 after she says she endured years of harassment, lewd nicknames, insubordination and discrimination.

Franchina said she was targeted because she’s a woman and a lesbian, and moved up the ranks of the Department quickly.

“It had an effect almost every day,” Franchina told Eyewitness News. “It breaks you. It wears you down. You still try to come to work every day and do your job well.”

In the 19-page lawsuit filed in federal court, Franchina said she filed dozens of verbal and written complaints regarding incidents of insubordination and harassment. She also had a restraining order against a fellow firefighter she said assaulted her.

Franchina says it was only a select few firefighters, not the entire department, conducting the harassment. But she says superiors ignored her complaints and retaliated against her.

“It was known that these things were happening, and nothing had been done,” she said.

In one 2009 incident, the lawsuit describes a scenarios when Franchina was working on a victim who had been shot in the head. A male subordinate snapped his rubber glove in her face, which “launched blood, brain matter, and other fluids into her mouth, nostrils, eyes, and ears.”

Franchina claimed she suffered post-traumatic stress disorder following that incident.

The suit also recounted a 2006 emergency call in which Franchina claims male firefighters refused to help her save a life:

“Lt. Franchina ascertained [a patient] had a viable pulse and was a candidate for lifesaving medicine and intervention. Several male firefighters refused to help her move the body. The patient’s family members were yelling ‘Why doesn’t somebody help her?. The patient never regained consciousness.”

The only firefighter named in the lawsuit is Andre Ferro, who city officials confirmed Monday is still on active duty at the Fire Department. According to Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare, Ferro was disciplined in 2009 and no further action will be taken. Payroll records show he makes more than $62,000 per year.

Mayor Jorge Elorza says the city is appealing the decision.

“We’ll be appealing the case and this will ultimately be decided sometime down the road,” he said. If the decision holds up, the city will pay the $806,000 through its general budget.

When asked if any changes would be made at the Fire Department, Elorza said any sort of review would be done after the court appeal.

“For now, we’re letting the legal process run its course and we’ll wait and see what the appeals court actually decides,” Elorza said.

Franchina said she hopes her victory will result in changes in Providence and show people around the country that employers need to follow Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination.

“Hazing, bullying, things of that nature…they need to step in immediately and take immediate action,” she said. “It’s really important to make all classes, all races protected.”

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