TAMPA — Former firefighter Tanja Vidovic should be reinstated to Tampa Fire Rescue, a U.S. District Court judge ruled Wednesday, nearly two years after she filed a federal lawsuit against the city and was fired the next day.
She won her discrimination and retaliation case against the city on Dec. 7, when a jury awarded her $245,000 in damages. Now the city has 60 days to bring Vidovic, 36, back to work as a firefighter, according to the seven-page order from Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich.
"I’m happy to go back to work and I’m excited to be back serving the public at a job that I love,’ Vidvoic emailed to the Tampa Bay Times. "I hope that the City of Tampa will take this as an opportunity to review their policies and make sure that all firefighters are treated fairly."
The order was issued just hours after Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the Times the city would appeal the verdict. The judge’s order sets the clock ticking on the city’s 30-day window to make that decision official.
Those were the latest developments in Vidovic’s multi-year battle with the city. She first spoke out about the problems facing female firefighters at Tampa Fire Rescue in 2015. She filed suit on March 23, 2016 and was fired on March 24.
The trial started in November. After hearing from about 20 witnesses over four weeks, the jury found that the city had discriminated against Vidovic because she was pregnant and then retaliated against her for complaining.
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Earlier Wednesday, before the judge’s order for reinstatement was issued, Buckhorn defended Tampa Fire Rescue. He said the agency 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."
While the mayor vowed to appeal earlier in the day, city spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said officials will review the judge’s order before making a final decision.
"We appreciate Judge Kovachevich’s thorough review of this case" Buckhorn said in a statement issued after the judge’s order. "We continue to remain committed as a city to take all necessary steps to comply with the federal law’s prohibition against unlawful discrimination as we have always done."
While Vidovic got her job back, the court rejected several other requests from the plaintiff:
The judge denied Vidovic’s request that certain records, such as disciplinary findings and a negative performance evaluation, be removed from her file.
The court also ruled against her request that Tampa Fire Rescue install separate bathroom facilities for women at all of its stations within five years and establish specific policies for promotions, breast-feeding and work-hours for pregnant firefighters.
Kovachevich wrote that those policies "are best left to the City of Tampa to create and implement."
"It doesn’t come as a surprise to me at all that the court didn’t give (those requests) to her," said attorney Tom Gonzalez, who is representing the city in this case. "It comes as a surprise to me that she asked for it."
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Vidovic’s attorney Stanley Padgett said reinstatement is a customary remedy in any discrimination case. But by ordering Vidovic’s reinstatement, the judge denied her request to receive front-pay, or the money she would have made were she still working.
The judge’s order could save the city up to $2 million in additional damages. Vidovic’s attorneys had asked for as much as $712,404 in lieu of getting her job back and $1,219,530 in pension benefits. Tampa no longer has to pay either.
However, if the city or Vidovic appeals, the legal costs will continue to climb. Vidovic’s lawyers said they have spent $684,000 in legal fees and the city has spent $300,000 defending itself. Those costs will be fought over at a later date.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, invited Vidovic to speak at a Tuesday forum on sexual harassment. The congresswoman said then that there is a sense of frustration in the community that the city continues to fight this discrimination case.
"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."
Vidovic’s attorneys have said the city has never shown any interest in settling the case.
"You hope that the city will take the jury’s verdict to heart, take the judge’s judgement to heart, and say, ‘We messed up, we’re going to do better and we move on,’" Padgett said. "The department should change its behavior. And it should be particularly careful of its behavior with Tanja."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.