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Tampa will not appeal firefighter discrimination case

Former firefighter Tanja Vidovic won a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Tampa in December. A federal judge also ruled in February that she should be reinstated to Tampa Fire Rescue. The city on Friday said it will not appeal, ending the case. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES   |   Times]
Former firefighter Tanja Vidovic won a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Tampa in December. A federal judge also ruled in February that she should be reinstated to Tampa Fire Rescue. The city on Friday said it will not appeal, ending the case. [GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | Times]
Published Mar. 16, 2018

TAMPA — The city will not appeal the discrimination and retaliation case it lost to a pregnant firefight last year.

That means the court case is over. Tampa Fire Rescue will obey a federal judge's order and re-hire Tanja Vidovic, the firefighter it fired the day after she filed suit in March 2016. The city will also pay the $245,000 in damages the jury awarded her in December.

By dropping the appeal, the city will also stop paying the legal bills this case has racked up. The city has already spent $300,000 defending itself, and will still have to pay whatever legal costs a judge awards to Vidovic.

Vidovic said she was relieved that litigation is over.

"I am happy to hear the City decided not to appeal," she said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "I have been overwhelmed with the support that a vast number of community members have shown me.

"I look forward to going back to work and continuing to be a positive voice in my community.

FROM 2015: Women face multiple hurdles within Tampa Fire Rescue

After four weeks of trial, the seven-person jury found on Dec. 7 that the city discriminated against Vidovic because she was pregnant and found that officials retaliated against her when she complained. By deciding not to file an appeal within a 30-day window, the city will essentially close the case.

"While we continue to disagree with the verdict, after reviewing what would be involved with an appeal we decided it's in the best interest of the city, its employees and our commitment to a positive workplace environment to move forward," Tampa spokeswoman Ashley Bauman said in a statement.

Bauman said the city continuously reviews its personnel policies, including those involving pregnant employees, to ensure it is complying with federal law and supporting all families.

Vidovic is set to return as a firefighter paramedic to Tampa Fire Rescue sometime in the next 30 days.

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

After prevailing at the trial, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich in February ordered Vidovic, 36, reinstated at the fire department. That gave the city 60 days to bring Vidovic back to work.

The judge's also order set the clock ticking on the city's 30-day window to file an appeal. That clock runs out Friday.

In the past, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the city had grounds to appeal.

"I'm sure there are folks in every department that say and do stupid things, but for the most part these are good employees," Buckhorn said.

Vidovic spent years speaking out about the treatment of women at Tampa Fire Rescue. She wrote dozens of emails to supervisors, the fire chief and human resources voicing complaints and asking for new policies.

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In 2015, she was one of several women to speak with the Tampa Bay Times about the lack of female bathrooms in most stations, concerns that women were skipped over for promotions, and stories of sexual harassment from male firefighters.

The city made some changes, issuing memos about bathroom use and installing privacy partitions. The city has not installed any female bathrooms, though it plans to do so when it breaks ground on Station 23 this year. Six of Tampa's 22 fire stations have designated male and female bathrooms and showers.

Vidovic filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint a month later, alleging, among other things, that three captains asked her for sex.

A year later, she filed a lawsuit against the city, citing numerous examples of harassment and discrimination. She was fired from Tampa Fire Rescue the next day.

By the time her case went to trial, the only charges before the judge and jury were discrimination based on pregnancy and gender, and retaliation.

"It is important to note that the judge and jury did not find that Tanja Vidovic was sexually harassed nor was she subject to a hostile work place," Bauman said, "and, in fact, dismissed those accusations."

But Vidovic lamented that they jury never heard those claims, saying that Florida law makes it "so difficult" to prove sexual harassment.

"But it doesn't change that there was discrimination and retaliation, whatever you want to call it," she said.

A month before the trial started, Kovachevich struck Vidovic's complaints of harassment and a hostile work from the lawsuit, stating that the firefighter's examples were not severe or pervasive enough

"While the statements are certainly boorish and unprofessional," the judge said in her ruling, "they are not so severe compared to other hostile workplace counts that have been permitted to be submitted to juries."

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

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