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After enduring years of harassment, lesbian firefighter awarded $800,000

A former Providence, R.I., firefighter who says she was harassed and discriminated against for being a lesbian was awarded more than $800,000 in US District Court Monday.

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    Firefighting gear hangs ready for use at the Snyder Fire Department in Snyder, Texas. A Rhode Island jury awarded former Providence firefighter Lori Franchina more than $800,000 in a suit charging the city with failing to respond to reports of harassment and discrimination during her tenure as fire lieutenant.
    Ronald W. Erdrich/The Abilene Reporter-News/AP
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A former Rhode Island firefighter won a drawn-out battle over what she says were years of discrimination and harassment at her work in court on Monday.

Retired fire Lt. Lori Franchina sued the city of Providence, its fire department and the Providence Fire Fighters IAFF Local 799 in federal court in 2012, after what she says were years of sexual harassment and gender discrimination from her male colleagues because she is a lesbian. While the fire department and union were dismissed from the case in 2012, the city was held liable.

According to the complaint filed in July 2012, "male colleagues subjected her to such intense, constant, and prolific mistreatment that she eventually was left in multiple situations in which her safety was compromised...."

A jury awarded Lieutenant Franchina $806,000 following a two-week trial, including $545,000 in future wages she would have likely earned had she not left the fire department, and $261,000 for emotional and punitive damages, according to The Providence Journal.

Franchina says her experience left her with post traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual harassment, a claim backed by her psychologist and psychiatrist in court. She added that her superiors did not act to stop the few firefighters she said participated in the harassment, discrimination, and insubordination.

"It was known that these things were happening, and nothing had been done," Franchina told WPRI Eyewitness News. "It breaks you. It wears you down. You still try to come to work every day and do your job well."

The defense said that Franchina was difficult to get along with, and that she failed to file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint while with the department.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza says the city will appeal the decision.

"This will ultimately be decided sometime down the road," Mr. Elorza told WPRI. "For now, we're letting the legal process run its course and we'll wait and see what the appeals court actually decides."

Franchina's lawyer John Martin said his client was surprised to hear of her legal victory.

"She was really in kind of a state of shock; it was such a long ordeal," Mr. Martin told the Journal.

"She had a tremendous amount of family support throughout the entire trial," he added.

Franchina told WPRI she hopes the decision can change the culture within the Providence Fire Department, and encourage stricter handling of workplace discrimination in the future.

"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."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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