Tenn. woman awarded $1.5M for wrongful firing

January 25, 2010

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NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A federal jury awarded a former Nashville schools employee about $1.5 million on Monday after the woman claimed she was wrongfully terminated when she cooperated in a sexual harassment investigation of a school official.

Former Metro Schools Payroll Coordinator Vicky Crawford claimed she was fired in 2003 after more than 30 years with the district because she cooperated in the investigation. Crawford sought lost wages, future lost wages and pension benefits.

Her lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge and upheld on appeal. Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Crawford could sue claiming retaliation even though she was not the one who brought the original sexual harassment claims.

The case was sent back to U.S. District Court in Nashville for trial, which was held last week.

"It's been a long, long fight. It's been very hard all these years, and we're very happy with the verdict," said Ann Steiner, Crawford's attorney.

Metro Attorney Kevin Klein declined to say whether they would appeal.

Crawford was interviewed by investigators for the school system who were looking into other employees' allegations against Employee Relations Director Gene Hughes.

According to court documents, Crawford told investigators Hughes would ask to see her breasts, grab his crotch saying, "You know what's up," and on one occasion pulled her head to his crotch.

When human resources officer Veronica Frazier asked Crawford to cooperate in an investigation of Hughes, she complied after Frazier assured her she would be protected from retaliation.

Ultimately, no action was taken against Hughes, Frazier testified, because there were no witnesses to his behavior. But on the same day Frazier turned in her report on the allegations, she also sent a letter to Metro Nashville's internal audit department informing them of concerns with the operation of Crawford's payroll department.

Attorneys for the city said Crawford was once a good employee, but her job performance had been slipping for some time and she was fired for poor performance.

Crawford was placed on administrative leave less than two months later, in November 2002. She was terminated in January after an outside audit found serious problems with the payroll department, including 25 uncashed checks lying about Crawford's office.

Crawford has been unable to get a job since 2003, she lost her house and has no car, Steiner said. She also lost her professional reputation because, among other things, an article in The Tennessean quoted Metro officials stating she might have embezzled from the department, although no embezzlement was ever found.