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A federal jury on Tuesday awarded more than $1.2 million to a former Philadelphia firefighter who said he was forced out of his job after 20 years in retaliation for complaining that he was the victim of sexual harassment by men under his command who perceived him to be gay. After a six-day trial, the 10-member jury deliberated for just two hours before awarding Robert Bianchi $225,000 in backpay, $512,000 in front pay and $500,000 in compensatory damages for emotional distress. Bianchi’s lawyer, Andrew F. Erba of Philadelphia-based Williams, Cuker & Berezofsky, told the jury that “the City of Philadelphia has adopted a policy and practice that when an individual comes forward with a complaint of workplace harassment, they turn to him and they blame the victim.” Erba said Bianchi was “pushed out of a job he loved.” Just before the trial began, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a legally significant opinion in which she dismissed Bianchi’s claim of sexual harassment under Title VII but allowed him to go forward with a claim of retaliation under Title VII, a civil rights claim under � 1983 and a due process claim. Brody found that a plaintiff like Bianchi — who claims he was sexually harassed because his co-workers mistakenly perceived him to be gay — cannot sue under Title VII unless he can also show that the mistreatment he suffered was somehow connected to his lack of conformity with stereotypes of how men and women should behave. To survive summary judgment, Brody said, such a plaintiff must have “some evidence that the discrimination he suffered resulted from his failure to match the societal ideal of manliness.” But Brody also held that since Bianchi made “good faith” complaints of sexual harassment, he was entitled to sue for any retaliation he suffered — even if the original complaints were legally invalid. According to the suit, Bianchi joined the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1977. After 17 years of service, he was promoted in 1994 to the rank of lieutenant. In March 1996, Bianchi was assigned to Ladder Company No. 2, Platoon A, at the firehouse at 4th and Arch streets, and soon began to institute changes in the discipline and training at the firehouse, some of which were not well-received by members of the company. Bianchi claims the alleged sexual harassment began within his first month of assuming command. He says he discovered several used condoms inside his desk drawer and began finding explicit homosexual playing cards inside his desk, his uniform and his running gear. Later, he said, he found envelopes with the return address from the Gay Firefighters Association in his desk. At first, Bianchi said, he opted not to complain. But he said he was forced to go to his superiors when the alleged harassment continued for months. Although no official action was taken, Bianchi said that senior members of the department had advised his platoon that the conduct would not be tolerated. In November 1997, Bianchi says, he grew dissatisfied and told his battalion chief that he was taking his complaints to the police, the Civil Service Commission and his union. Soon after, Bianchi says, he was removed from his post and given a job in the department’s safety office. In January 1998, the city notified Bianchi that he was removed from firefighting line duties and would be subject to physical and mental exams before he could be returned to full work. But even after he had returned to work, Bianchi claims, the alleged harassment continued. He says he received an anonymous letter, smeared with feces, that accused him and his twin brother, also a firefighter, of being “queers” and that read, “We hear you are back to work in a pussy job.” An investigation of the letter incident was begun, and investigators found that the firehouse was a “hostile environment” for Bianchi, Bianchi says. But none of the responsible individuals was identified. Soon after, Bianchi took a medical leave on the advice of his doctor. Although Bianchi says he attempted to return to work, he was never reinstated. Ultimately, the city terminated him, saying he was deemed to have abandoned his job. Erba told the jury that the city effectively blamed Bianchi for the entire situation and suggested that his failure to get along well with the men under his command was the result of his own personality. In fact, Erba said, Bianchi was understandably angry because the Fire Department was failing to protect him. By taking the action it did, Erba said, the city also “stigmatized” Bianchi as a person who was unable to work. Deputy City Solicitor Milton Velez said yesterday that the city was disappointed by the verdict and would be weighing the options for a possible challenge, either in post-trial motions or an appeal. The city was represented during the trial by Deputy City Solicitors Michael Holmes and Stephen C. Miller.

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