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After years of litigation, pro se plaintiff Katrina Okoli still fighting city hall

In her six-year fight with her former employer, the city of Baltimore, Katrina Okoli has managed to flout two maxims: that you can’t fight city hall and that those who represent themselves in court have a fool for a client.

Katrina Okoli has represented herself throughout all but the appellate leg of her litigation.

Okoli, 50, started working for the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education in June 2004 and was fired two years later. She filed suit in October 2006, claiming she had been sexually harassed and then fired for complaining about it. The city claimed the firing was productivity-related.

After one removal to federal court, one summary judgment ruling against her, a reversal by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and, finally, a jury trial, a verdict was reached this month in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

The federal jury awarded Okoli $60,000 on her retaliation claim. However, it did not find she had been subjected to sexual harassment.

Both sides have filed post-trial motions — and Okoli, for one, is not backing down.

“Women in the situation I was in often have to choose to either take flight or fight,” she said. “I thought about the women who go through these experiences like mine and don’t know who to trust or what to do, and I thought the best thing to do to prevent it, maybe, from happening again is to stand up and fight.”

Her tenacity has been noted by Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson, whose office opposed her in the litigation and the appeal.

“She’s been a pretty aggressive advocate for her cause,” said “She has definitely been persistent.”

It hasn’t been easy, Okoli said. She has handled her lawsuit pro se throughout all of the proceedings, except during the appeal when the 4th Circuit appointed a lawyer to help her.

“I wouldn’t personally suggest doing this to anyone,” she said. “There are many nights where I’ll spend hours doing research and reading. And there have been many nights where I’ll wake up and think I’ve missed a deadline or have a hearing coming up.”

While she hadn’t planned on going into the legal fight alone, she said, she was not going to back away because she could not find the right counsel — one she could afford and who would believe in her cause.

“I was prepared to handle it myself,” she said. “I realized the truth was on my side, and I had this belief that if there’s a law on the books and it applies to my circumstances, I’m going to stand up for it. If it’s on the books, I’m going to fight for it.”

Going it alone

At one point in her life, Okoli had thought about being a lawyer.

In the 1990s, Okoli said, she studied for a graduate degree in criminal justice with the intent to pursue a law degree. While she never completed that degree (as a young divorced mother, she said, she needed to get a job), she credited many of those classes with helping her get her head around some of what she encountered in litigating the case.

“In the beginning, I’d have to read things over and over again,” Okoli said. “It’s a different beast, reading the law and trying to comprehend it.”

At first, she said, she was driven by what she saw as the injustice done to her. Later, she was able to compartmentalize that and focus on learning what she needed to do handle a busy federal case that required a lot of motions, memos and legal research.

“Early on, I think my emotions were still raw, and I think that helped me keep going,” Okoli said. “Over the years, some of those emotions died down. The negative stuff has subsided enough to let me focus on what was needed.”

The “negative stuff,” according to her lawsuit, included months in which she was forcibly kissed, fondled and subjected to innuendo and stories about her boss’ sexual fantasies; then, she said, she was fired hours after she made a formal complaint to then-Mayor Martin O’Malley.

The city said her termination letter was in the works before Okoli spoke to O’Malley.

Okoli filed the first complaint of sexual harassment and retaliation with the city’s employee relations commission, which ruled in the city’s favor. The city also won when she appealed that administrative decision.

After the city boards rejected her claims, Okoli said, she knew she wanted to press the issue in court.

Okoli said she met with attorneys, but given the nature of the case, she said they wanted retainers and would not take it on contingency.

“I thought, I’m the one who lived this and suffered through it — and yet it would always come down to the money,” Okoli said.

Deciding to go it alone, Okoli waded into the litigation.

The city was successful in having the suit transferred to federal court in November 2006. In September 2008, Judge William M. Nickerson found the alleged conduct by former CARE Executive Director John P. Stewart, Okoli’s boss, was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment. He entered judgment in favor of the city.

Okoli appealed the decision to the 4th Circuit. That was the only time she felt overwhelmed about what lay ahead, she said.

She said she was especially daunted by the thought of facing oral arguments in front of the judges.

“I knew I was nowhere near prepared to stand up there and argue my case in front of the appeals court,” Okoli said.

She sought and was assigned counsel to help with the appeal. The 4th Circuit reversed the ruling and remanded the case for trial.

Personal toll

Acting as her own advocate has taken its toll on Okoli, who spent 20 years building her career as an executive assistant before taking the job with the city. Since then, she has worked with a nonprofit that helps people without a high school education secure a GED certificate.

With the jury trial looming this year, she left that position. Now, she is working to secure her state teaching certificate.

“There was so much lost,” she said. “It was like being at Ground Zero and having to work my way back up.”

She credits her three daughters, now grown, with helping her handle the pressures of continuing litigation. One daughter, a stage actress, even helped her prepare her closing argument. Her daughters also pitched in after the trial in April and treated Okoli to some much-needed rest and relaxation at a spa.

“They were a huge help,” Okoli said. “There’s no way to tell how all of this would have turned out without their support.”

Postscript

Despite the jury verdict, the case is far from over.

The city’s law department entered a post-trial motion seeking a new trial or judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

Okoli, too, submitted a post-trial motion challenging the verdict on her sexual harassment claim as well as the amount awarded. By her estimate, the back pay she was owed was far beyond what the jury came up with.

Okoli said she plans to see the matter through, even if it means another trip to the 4th Circuit.

“It’s never really been about the money, but the verdict was just so much below the back pay I was due that it is too much to not address,” she said. “So, if it has to go back to the appellate court again, then I’m absolutely going to continue.”