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Buckhorn: Tampa will appeal $245,000 verdict in firefighter discrimination case

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Wednesday morning that the city will appeal a $245,000 jury verdict in the high-profile discrimination case brought by former firefighter Tanya Vidovic.

Buckhorn said he would not discuss ongoing litigation, but then added that "there is more than one side to this story." He added that the fire department has a proud history of promoting women and said the city does not tolerate harassment.

"We are appealing this with valid legal reasons," Buckhorn said. "I’m sure there are folks in every department that say and do stupid things, but for the most part these are good employees."

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Vidovic shared a different story during a four-week trial last year. She told the seven-person jury she experienced years of harassment, including co-workers propositioning her, male firefighters locking her out of the fire station’s co-ed bathrooms, a supervisor citing her pregnancy as a reason to dock her annual evaluation and being told she needed to pump her breast milk in a hazardous decontamination room.

The jury decided that Vidovic was discriminated against and retaliated against after voicing those complaints to her captains, superiors, human resources and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The jury did not find that the city discriminated against her based on her gender, the third claim in the lawsuit.

The city will have to wait for a few more steps to take place in the legal process before it can officially file its appeal.

U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich is still reviewing a motion for Vidovic to be reinstated as a firefighter or receive benefits, such as her pension, and has not yet issued a final judgement in the case. The city’s attorney, Thomas Gonzalez, could file a motion asking the judge to overturn the ruling. Gonzalez filed a similar motion for a new trial on Dec. 3, which the judge denied.

Once the court’s trial judgement becomes final, the city has 30 days to file an appeal. That process could last a year or more, Vidovic’s attorney Stanley Padgett said.

"The city is going to continue to try every single procedural measure," Padgett said. "They’ll just drag it out as long as they can."

City Attorney Sal Territo would not discuss pending litigation. Conzalez did not return a call for comment.

The case has already cost taxpayers about $550,000 in damages and attorneys fees, and that number could rise to more than $3 million, if Kovachevich were to grant every request from Vidovic’s attorneys. However, it is ultimately up to the judge how much money, if any, Vidovic is owed for her attorneys’ fees, pension and front pay, or the money Vidovic would have earned had she kept her job.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE:

Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue (April 6, 2015)

Tampa female firefighter fired after filing harassment lawsuit (April 7, 2016)

Jury awards former Tampa firefighter $245,000 in discrimination case (Dec. 7, 2017)

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said Tuesday that there is already a sense of frustration in the community that the city continues to push this case forward.

"Folks realized how much the city taxpayers are on the hook for this case, a case that has now had a jury verdict," Castor said. "People do not understand why there wasn’t a reasonable settlement, and why there wasn’t more done on a proactive basis in the City of Tampa."

Padgett said it is somewhat surprising to hear that the city plans to appeal the case after the jury made its decision.

"I simply wonder if they decided this is the case where they’re going to shut all women up," Padgett said. "They’re going to make it plain that they’re going to make a woman’s life a living hell. Not only if she complains, but if she goes to court as well."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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