A former Houston firefighter whose lawsuit against the city broadened federal sexual harassment protections has notched another win after a Harris County jury on Thursday awarded her mental anguish damages in a suit against her former direct supervisor.
Melinda Abbt sued John Chris Barrientes, a junior captain with the Houston Fire Department, on Dec. 26, 2018, in Harris County under a relatively new state law, alleging he had unlawfully disclosed intimate visual material — namely, a video of portraits of herself both nude and wearing lingerie that she made for her husband. When the law passed in 2015 it was widely referred to as the “revenge porn” law, though what happened in this case shows the conduct covered by the statute is broader than that.
The video was stolen off Abbt’s laptop, according to the lawsuit, and it’s unclear exactly how Barrientes came into possession of the video, but what wasn’t disputed at trial is that in 2007 he shared the video with a higher-ranking firefighter, District Chief David Elliott.
“She only found out about this when Elliott fessed up to her husband,” Jordan Warshauer, an attorney with Ahmad, Zavitsanos & Mensing who represents Abbt, told The Lawbook.
Abbt’s husband is also a firefighter for the city of Houston.
“[Elliott] said, and we have no reason to disbelieve it, that he found God and he told Mr. Abbt there’s no statute of limitations on sin,” Warshauer said. “And he felt this was something he had to confess, so he finally did 10 years later.”
Barrientes is represented by Joseph G. Soliz of Houston. Soliz did not immediately respond to an interview request Friday.
Abbt was unable to return to work after learning the video had been circulated, and she and her family also moved away from the city, Warshauer said, because of the mental anguish caused by both the end of her career and seeing former colleagues around town. Her husband still is employed by HFD.
The jury heard that after Abbt learned Barrientes had seen and shared the video, she filed a complaint with the department’s appropriate investigating authorities, which triggered a notice to Barrientes.
“We know when Barrientes got notice he went and deleted the email where he had her video,” Warshauer said. “And then he lied about it to investigators until later on. Eventually, he admitted that he had seen it and emailed it.”
Testimony began in the case Nov. 15, and jurors heard from five witnesses before beginning deliberations on Thursday. Barrientes testified at trial, telling jurors he believed he had done the right thing by telling Elliott about the video.
The jury also heard Elliott was not Barreintes’ direct supervisor.
It took about an hour for the jury to reach a decision that Abbt was entitled to about $130,000 in mental anguish and exemplary damages and about $120,000 in attorney fees.
Warshauer said Abbt’s testimony was particularly impactful in the courtroom.
“She was very brave in bringing this lawsuit, and it has not been easy for her,” she said. “There were times on the stand when she did get emotional, talking about the video and the aftermath. The jury believed her.”
Originally, Abbt filed one suit against both the city and her supervisor. U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes had granted the city a summary judgment win tossing the suit and sent the state law claim against Barrientes to Harris County District Court.
In a case of first impression, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2022 expanded sexual harassment protections in reviving her claim against the city of Houston.
The court held that Abbt didn’t need to experience harassment in real time for it to be actionable, rejecting an argument from the city that she couldn’t bring the claim because she only found out about the harassment that happened behind her back later.
Warshauer is part of the trial team on that part of the case as well.
“While we are grateful and pleased the jury held Mr. Barrientes accountable for what he did individually, we also look forward to holding the city accountable for letting this hostile workplace happen,” she said.
Following remand from the Fifth Circuit, the case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Drew B. Tipton.
In the federal case, Abbt is represented by Joseph Y. Ahmad and Warshauer. AZA’s Kelsi White led the appeal in the Fifth Circuit. The city of Houston is represented in the federal lawsuit by its own Marjorie L. Cohen and Anuradha Thiagarajan.
The jury trial took place before Harris County District Judge Ursula Hall
Abbt was also represented in the Harris County lawsuit by AZA attorney Karina Sanchez-Peralta.
The Harris County district court case number is 2018-90881. The federal case number is 4:19-cv-01353.