FLORIDA – A federal jury has unanimously found the city of New Smyrna Beach liable in the sexual harassment of former female firefighter-paramedic and awarded her $444,000 in back wages and emotional distress damages.
After five days of testimony in Orlando on Tuesday, the seven-woman and one-man jury found in two hours of deliberations that Melissa Ignasiak Smith suffered sexual harassment at the hands of lieutenants and chiefs within the Fire Department. They also said there was evidence she was retaliated against and eventually fired when she complained about the treatment.
“There are no words to describe the vindication I feel,” said Smith, 35, during a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon.
Smith’s attorney William Amlong said the verdict “was one more message from one more jury that fire and police departments can’t act this way.”
His co-counsel Karen Amlong said while the evidence in the case was “very clear,” she was surprised by how quickly the jury came to its decision.
“There were a lot of documents and testimony and they seemed to make up their minds very quickly,” she said.
New Smyrna Beach City Attorney Frank Gummey said the city, which was represented by counsel provided through the Florida League of Cities Florida Municipal Insurance Trust, disagrees with the verdict and will appeal.
He added the suit stemmed from a matter “where the employee was terminated for cause and an arbitrator upheld that termination.”
Fire Chief David McCallister, who was named in Smith’s complaint against the city, referred all calls to City Manager Pam Brangaccio.
“Having not been here during these events I have no comment,” Brangaccio said. “Other than I am glad we are appealing the verdict.”
William Amlong was not surprised by the city’s announcement it would appeal, but said such acts could only be based on a judicial mistake and U.S. District Judge Roy B Dalton Jr. made no such mistakes.
In a press release announcing the verdict, the Amlongs said in addition to the jury’s $444,000 award, Smith is also entitled under state and federal law to either reinstatement or front pay and that will be decided by Dalton.
In the lawsuit complaint filed in July 2011, Smith’s Fort Lauderdale-based attorneys stated “after being told by a battalion chief that ‘women should not be in the fire service,’ (she) was harassed and treated poorly not only by the same battalion chief, but by other male firefighters as well because of her gender. After complaining about gender discrimination, she was suspended indefinitely and terminated by the City of New Smyrna Beach.”
Smith, who now works as an emergency room nurse at Halifax Health Medical Center in Daytona Beach, said over the past 10 years — five of which she has not worked for the city — New Smyrna Beach officials were aware of the actions taken against her.
“I took it all the way up to (then City Manager John Hagood) and pleaded with them to fix it,” she said. “I tried and tried to fix this while working there.”
Smith said the reason she kept up her fight, even after being fired in 2008, was to make sure no other female who wants to be a firefighter at New Smyrna Beach has to endure what she and other women who worked for the department had to suffer through.
There are currently no female firefighters working for the New Smyrna Beach Fire Department.
“I also did this so my daughter can see there is still some positive out there and if you dig down deep enough and continue to fight, people will be held liable for the laws they violate,” she said.
The jury verdict form showed jurors agreed in all cases that a “preponderance of the evidence” supported each of Smith’s claims, including the lone “no” marked on the form. That no stated jurors did not see evidence that Smith would have been discharged or otherwise adversely affected for other reasons even in the absence of the statutorily protected activity.
Smith’s lawsuit came after an U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dismissed her complaint of gender discrimination, stating its investigation failed to find any violations of statute.
The city’s response to the EEOC complaint said Smith had a history of issues including tardiness, arguing with a superior, failing to call in sick, and other matters for which she received verbal counseling and written warnings.
Another point of contention between the city and Smith were two investigations into her actions during an August 2007 vehicle accident.
The city said in its EEOC response that Smith violated city policy on insubordination by ignoring the orders of a superior. A second investigation conducted by McCallister, then the deputy chief, caused suspension of Smith’s paramedic’s license.
However, Smith and her attorneys contented and said testimony at trial showed as lead paramedic on the scene, the other firefighters should have taken their lead from Smith as she was in charge of all medical decisions.
The appeal of the jury’s verdict is not the only judicial matter Smith has pending. She is also currently facing a criminal charge of driving under the influence with person or property damage.
Smith is the daughter of former Edgewater police chief and current Edgewater Vice Mayor Mike Ignasiak.