Miami Beach

Judge overturns sexual-harassment verdict in Miami Beach firefighter case

A federal judge on Tuesday overruled a jury’s decision that a Miami Beach firefighter should get $700,000 for being sexually harassed.

U.S. District Judge Marcia G. Cooke found that Marlenis Smart’s treatment did not meet the legal definition of sexual harassment, and that the incidents Smart complained about were not severe or pervasive enough to be considered a sexually hostile work environment.

The judge said Smart had shown “inappropriate, vulgar and offensive” treatment by other firefighters but not enough to support her legal claim.

Miami Beach attorneys had asked the judge to reverse the jury’s verdict because, according to the city, the facts didn’t support the verdict.

“Even if true — and we disputed them — but even if true, her claims didn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment,” said Chief Deputy City Attorney Donald Papy.

The city also claimed that certain evidence was improperly considered or not considered at all. Lastly, the city said it uncovered evidence that Smart and her mother tampered with witnesses.

It’s rare for judges to reverse jury verdicts, but it can happen if the judge is persuaded that no reasonable jury could have reached a particular conclusion .

“The law is broken. A jury awarded me this. And how can this, all of a sudden, how did this happen?” Smart asked.

She said she plans to appeal the decision.

Should an appellate court overturn Judge Cooke’s decision, Miami Beach would be granted a new trial, according to the judge’s order.

Despite the win for the city, Cooke noted that Miami Beach firefighters had acted in an “abhorrent and unprofessional” way.

“This is no way to run a railroad,” she wrote in her order.

The Miami Beach Fire Department did not respond to requests for comments.

Smart sued the city in May 2010. She claimed that colleagues called her derogatory names, that she once found a missing bathing suit stained with semen, and that she was walked in on while showering. When she asked for a lock to be put on the bathroom door, Smart was given a broomstick handle that said “Smart Lock.”

“The incidents Ms. Smart identifies were single-occurring instances that, while inappropriate, vulgar, and offensive, were not severe. Given that there were three to four incidents over a five-year period, it certainly was not pervasive,” Cooke wrote.

Rather, the judge wrote: “The evidence demonstrates that the behavior of Ms. Smart’s co-workers, again abhorrent and unprofessional, was related to personality conflicts with Ms. Smart or her co-workers perception of her being difficult to work and get along with.”

Smart, who continues to work for the Miami Beach Fire Department, declined to comment further. Her attorney’s phone number did not work, and an email to the attorney was not answered.

Miami Beach attorneys also presented evidence that Smart tried to influence a firefighter’s testimony in the case by threatening to testify that the firefighter made sexual advances to her. The city’s attorneys said that Smart’s mother called another firefighter. The firefighter was with city attorneys and put the call on speakerphone for them to hear. According to the city, Smart’s mother then told the firefighter to avoid a subpoena and what he should say if called to testify.

“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that plaintiff and her mother attempted to prevent and/or alter the testimony of two witnesses,” Cooke wrote.

Smart filed another lawsuit against the city last month, this time claiming that her civil rights were violated because she was retaliated against. A retaliation claim in her first lawsuit was dismissed. Smart also claims in her new suit that she was falsely imprisoned when she was locked in a room for questioning and police were called on her, and that the city intentionally inflicted emotional distress on her.

The city has not yet responded to the second lawsuit.

The lawyers representing Smart in her second case were on vacation and did not return a call for a comment.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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