Gay Officer Wins $623K Discrimination Verdict

Michael Salvi went to work as a corrections officer for the Suffolk County, Massachusetts House of Correction in 1994. He did not inform his coworkers that he was gay, as he considered it to be a private matter. In late 1997, Salvi learned that rumors of his sexual orientation had been circulating in the workplace. The rumors apparently were spread by a coworker named James O’Brien, who was the vice president of the corrections union.

In February 1998, Salvi was at a bar frequented by corrections officers at the same time as O’Brien and several other coworkers. O’Brien commented to a fellow worker that he wanted to know why the other officers were “hanging out with a fag.”

In March 1998, a package was sent to the home Salvi shared with his domestic partner. The package contained three children’s toy blocks glued together to spell the word “fag.” Salvi reported the incident to the Boston police and to the investigation division of the Sheriff’s Department. He informed the Department and the police that he suspected O’Brien of spreading the rumors and sending the package. The Department investigator told him he did not think O’Brien would do something like that, and the investigation cleared O’Brien.

After the investigation, comments about Salvi became more rampant in the workplace. One employee called Salvi a “fucking faggot” in front of a number of inmates, and coworkers would snicker and say “sissy” when Salvi’s name was called at roll call. He received a series of assignments that he believed to be demeaning and undesirable.

As this was going on, Salvi began to suffer from dysthemia, a form of prolonged depression. In 1999, Salvi attempted to commit suicide. The day after the suicide attempt, Salvi left the Department on medical leave and never returned to work. He brought a lawsuit against the County alleging that he was subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Massachusetts state law.

After a jury trial, a court awarded Salvi $623,600 in damages. Both Salvi and the County appealed from the award.
The Department argued that there was no evidence to sustain the finding that Salvi was subjected to a hostile work environment. The Court disagreed, finding that harassment was defined by the state statute to include “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.” The Court found that phrases used towards Salvi such as “fucking faggot” met the statutory test for harassment.

Salvi, on the other hand, argued that he should have been awarded prejudgment interest dating back to the day he terminated his employment with the Department. The Court agreed, indicating that the award to Salvi of back pay and emotional distress were all “compensatory in nature, and do not fall within the prohibition on prejudgment interest on damages which serve a purpose other than to make a plaintiff whole.”

Salvi v. Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department, 67 Mass.App.Ct. 596 (Mass.App. 2006).

This article appears in the December 2006 issue