Tampa’s losses mounting after losing firefighter sex discrimination trial

Former Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic steps out of the federal courthouse in Tampa during the trial of her sexual discrimination case against the city of Tampa last year. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON   |   Times]
Former Tampa firefighter Tanja Vidovic steps out of the federal courthouse in Tampa during the trial of her sexual discrimination case against the city of Tampa last year. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
Published February 12
Updated February 12

TAMPA — Ex-firefighter Tanja Vidovic won a $245,000 judgment against the city in December after jurors decided Tampa Fire Rescue discriminated against her because she was pregnant and fired her in retaliation for complaining about it.

FROM 2015: Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue

The city’s costs don’t end there, though. Tampa’s bills in the federal sex discrimination lawsuit are continuing to mount, and right now could theoretically cost the city more than $3 million.

It all depends on how much the judge grants Vidovic in lost wages and pension benefits, plus attorney’s fees. The city can challenge all that, and has already asked the trial judge to declare a mistrial.

Regardless, the city already has to pay $300,000 in attorney and trial costs for fighting the court case — and if the city loses its bid for a mistrial and decides to appeal the verdict, its legal bills would keep piling up.

Would a settlement end the city’s financial pain? Tampa officials have never showed an interest in settling, said Vidovic’s attorney Wendolyn Busch.

"There was no opportunity to settle," Busch said. "For some reason, they decided they were going to fight this tooth and nail, and they haven’t given any indication of stopping."

Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said the city does not discuss pending litigation.

2017 VERDICT: Jury awards former Tampa firefighter $245,000 in discrimination case

Public records show that the private attorneys representing the city, Tom Gonzalez and the firm of Thompson, Sizemore, Gonzalez & Hearing, charged the city more than $300,000 in 2016 and 2017, including more than $40,000 in expenses such as postage, research and deposition fees.

The city is already paying that bill. Here’s what else it might have to pay:

Vidovic’s attorneys asked the judge to award the former firefighter her pension benefits, which could total as much as $1,219,530, according to an expert they hired. They also asked for front pay, or the money Vidovic would have earned had she kept her job. The same expert determined Vidovic lost anywhere from $401,966 to $712,404 over a 10-year-period.

Ultimately, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich will decide how much of that pension and front pay, if any, Vidovic is owed.

Vidovic’s attorneys will also ask the city to pay her attorney fees, which they said exceed $684,000. If Kovachevich grants the motion, she will determine what constitutes a reasonable rate and number of hours spent. And if the city appeals, those costs will also continue to rise.

The City of Tampa took an aggressive posture in this case from the beginning, when the Tampa Bay Times first reported in 2015 that Vidovic and other female firefighters believed they were being mistreated by Tampa Fire Rescue. They complained about unfair promotion policies and the lack of female bathrooms in the city’s fire stations.

At the time, Buckhorn responded to those grievances by questioning the source of the concerns. "I am not privy to the specifics nor am I privy to who’s a chronic complainer and who’s not," the mayor told the Times in April 2015.

Vidovic sued the city in March 2016. The city fired her the next day.

Before the end of the four-week trial, Gonzalez asked the judge to declare a mistrial, saying the court limited the time the city had to present its case. According to the court’s timekeeping, the plaintiff’s attorneys used about 24 hours and the defense used about 30.

But that won’t stop the legal bills. If the judge grants the city a mistrial, then it must keep paying its lawyers through the retrial. If it loses and appeals the jury verdict, that will also cost money.

"This thing could go on for a couple more years," Busch said. "All the while, they’re spending a ton of taxpayer money."

Former City Council member Lisa Montelione, who served when Vidovic and other women first raised concerns about their treatment, said she was surprised the city didn’t try to settle and instead let the case go to trial.

"Why is the city spending all this money fighting this woman who was a firefighter and willing to put her life on the line for the citizens of Tampa?" Montelione asked.

The former council member said she was struck by how hard the city has fought an employee who asked for equal treatment. She wondered: Is that to discourage others from complaining?

"Is that the endgame? They don’t want anyone else do this, so they’re making an example of her?" Montelione said. "I think it’s disgraceful."

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from a city spokeswoman.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: TAMPA FIRE RESCUE DISCRIMINATION CASE

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

Reports of unequal treatment for women prompt changes at Tampa Fire Rescue Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue (April 14, 2015)

Tampa firefighters reminded not to talk to media in wake of harassment allegations (April 20, 2015)

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

Fired Tampa firefighter’s sex discrimination case opens with talk of shower peepers (Nov. 14, 2017)

Witness in lawsuit tells of inconsistent treatment of Tampa female firefighter (Nov. 15, 2017)

Tampa Fire Rescue says pregnant firefighter insisted on working in the field much longer than others (Nov. 16, 2017)

Jurors hear from firefighter who filed sex discrimination case (Nov. 21, 2017)

City attorney grills ex-Tampa firefighter in discrimination trial (Nov. 28, 2017)

Retired fire captain denies sexually harassing employee who sued Tampa (Nov. 30, 2017)

Tampa fire chief testifies in gender discrimination trial (Dec. 4, 2017)

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

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