A former Watertown police detective who filed a gender discrimination lawsuit claiming she faced a sexist work environment stretching back over two decades, and was retaliated against when she complained about the behavior, was awarded over $4 million in damages Thursday by a jury in Middlesex County.
Kathleen E. Donohue, the Watertown Police Department’s first female detective, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit in 2019, which also alleged she was targeted after speaking up about the conduct by other officers during the search for a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
On Thursday, after a several day trial in Middlesex Superior Court, the jury ruled in her favor, awarding her about $3.36 million for backpay, future earning and compensatory damages, plus $1 million in punitive damages, according to lawyers involved in the case.
A lawyer who represented Donohue praised her client’s courage.
“In an overwhelmingly male sector of the workforce like the police department, if people don’t have your back it’s extremely dangerous,” said Ellen Zucker, Donohue’s lead attorney. “It’s very hard to step up and say something about it, so women typically either leave or put up with it. What is wonderful about Ms. Donohue is she had the courage to step forward.”
“This verdict sends a broader message that work has to be done to make sure women in policing are treated with dignity and respect and equality,” Zucker added. “I hope this important moment will allow police departments to reflect on the way they do business, and change for the good of all of us.”
A lawyer for the town of Watertown said they will likely file an appeal to the verdict.
Doug Louison said defense attorneys “are disappointed and strongly disagree with the verdict.”
“It does not reflect the professionalism and respect that exists for the women and men who work within Watertown police department today,” he said Thursday evening, adding that defense attorneys will be “reviewing the case with an eye toward an appeal.”
In the lawsuit, Donohue described a workplace in which she endured inappropriate sexual and demeaning comments about her gender dating back to her earliest days on the force in 1998.
One sergeant warned Donohue when she did something he disliked that “he would have to ‘spank’ her if she did so again,” the complaint stated. Another of Donohue’s superior officers even noted in an early memo that “these comments may be inappropriate and directed at Off. Donohue because she is a female.”
Despite routine acknowledgment from peers and supervisors that disparaging comments were being made toward her, the treatment persisted — often by the very same people who acknowledged it was inappropriate.
When Donohue was promoted to become the department’s first female detective in 2002, the behavior of her male counterparts worsened, she alleged.
Although she was promoted to the rank of detective, her first assignment was to be a “detective clerk,” a job with a lot of desk time, according to Zucker.
Numerous colleagues also bragged to one another about their feigned “sexual exploits” with Donohue, the complaint said.
Donohue was also present during the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombing suspect found hiding in a boat in a yard in Watertown in April 2013.
In the complaint, Donohue said she reported to her superiors that she was endangered by bullets fired by fellow officers. When she reported the behavior to her superior, she was berated, the complaint said.
(A state review of the incident later concluded that several officers responding to the boat exercised poor judgment on the use of weapons.)
For years after that, the harassment and bullying steadily increased, with Donohue frequently called out and demeaned in front of her co-workers, and in one-on-one conversations with male superior officers, the complaint said.
The stress of a retaliatory work environment took a toll on her mental health and ability to safely remain on the job, according to the complaint.
Returning to work would “most certainly further exacerbate ... medical issues and jeopardize her health,” one doctor wrote.
Donohue’s paid leave ran out in April 2017, and she has not been paid since that time, despite being injured on duty. But her hope was restored Thursday — as was the hope of dozens of other female officers around the Commonwealth, Zucker said.
“Every day in the courtroom there were women police officers from other towns in Eastern Massachusetts. Every day,” Zucker said. “Some were people Donahue knew, some were not. But they came to watch. There were a couple there today, and they said, ‘This verdict is for all of us.’”
Donohue’s claims against the Watertown Police Association were resolved prior to trial, Zucker said. Attorneys for the union could not be reached for comment.