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History of Okoli’s litigation against the city of Baltimore

A federal jury awarded Katrina Okoli $60,000 in a sexual harassment lawsuit against the city of Baltimore over her retaliatory firing by the former executive director of the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education.

Okoli claimed she was forcibly kissed, fondled and subjected to innuendo and stories about her boss’ sexual fantasies over the course of several months, then fired hours after she made a formal complaint to then-Mayor Martin O’Malley. Okoli filed the lawsuit originally in Baltimore City Circuit Court in October 2006. The city succeeded in having the case removed to the U.S. District Court for Maryland in Baltimore a month later.

The lawsuit originally named the city as well as CARE Executive Director John P. Stewart; Gov. Martin O’Malley; then-Deputy Mayor Michael R. Enright; the CARE and another city worker. At the time of the jury trial, only the mayor and City Council of Baltimore remained as parties in the lawsuit.

The jury trial started on April 30. On May 7, the fifth day of the trial, the jury returned a verdict on the retaliation count alone awarding her $60,000.

Okoli filed a post-trial motion on May 9 seeking an additional $49,143 in back pay and $60,000 in sanctions. Okoli represented herself in the trial and with a law clinic assistant during the appeal.

The motion for judgment as a matter of law was filed under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. She said her main concern was with some of the jury instructions at trial.

“It seemed to me that the jury was just as disappointed as I was with the outcome,” Okoli said.

Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson, whose office handled the original trial and the appeal, declined to comment on the verdict.

The case went to trial after the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August held that trial judge should not have dismissed the complaint against the city of Baltimore and the former head of the Baltimore Commission on Aging and Retirement Education. According to the 4th Circuit, U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson found the alleged conduct by Stewart was not severe or pervasive enough to constitute a hostile work environment.

The 4th Circuit disagreed, noting that Okoli had raised at least 12 instances of harassment over the course of four months. For purposes of the appeal, the 4th Circuit treated Okoli’s allegations as true. While Stewart denied the allegations in an internal memo to the mayor, he did not deny or address them in two affidavits filed with the court, the appellate court’s opinion notes.

Okoli had been hired in June 2004 to serve as Stewart’s executive assistant. She represented herself in the original case, which sought back pay and punitive damages of an unspecified amount.

Nickerson granted the city’s motion for summary judgment in 2008, saying the city had a legitimate basis to fire Okoli for performance issues. A computer time-stamp showing the letter of termination was created a week before Okoli complained was cited as evidence against retaliation.

Okoli appealed and the 4th Circuit reversed, saying time stamps can be manipulated. While there was some evidence of Okoli making typographical errors and having scheduling issues, the court found it “deeply suspicious” that Okoli had been fired hours after she complained to the mayor.

OKOLI V. MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE

Court:

U.S. District Court in Baltimore

Case No.:

1:06-cv-03025-WMN

Judge:

William M Nickerson

Outcome:

Jury verdict

Dates:

Event: 2004-2006

Suit filed: Nov. 16, 2006

Trial: April 30, 2012-May 7, 2012

Verdict: May 7, 2012

Plaintiff’s Attorney:

Katrina Okoli, pro se.

Defendants’ Attorney:

Gary Gilkey, Baltimore City Law Department.

Counts:

Sexual harassment, retaliation.