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Jury Awards $11 Million To First Female Firefighter In Country Club Hills For Harassment, Discrimination

CHICAGO (CBS) -- A Cook County jury has awarded $11 million to a Country Club Hills firefighter who accused the department of years of sexual harassment.

Dena Lewis-Bystrzycki was the first female firefighter in Country Club Hills, and has been with the department for 19 years, but has been on paid leave for the past three years. In 2012, she sued the city for sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and retaliation.

In 2015, Lewis-Bystrzycki told CBS 2 she had endured years of verbal abuse from male firefighters. She said they even once broke down the door while she was showering.

"Then the chief handed me a towel and said, 'Relax, it's firehouse fun,'" she said.

Her attorney, Dana Kurtz, said the harassment didn't stop after Lewis sued.

"Not only did it have no effect on correcting the behavior, it just made it worse," she said in 2015.

An example: A license plate placed on her locker the read "Beaver Creek."

"Really? What are you trying to say?" Bystrzycki said. "You're just being derogatory toward females."

Then somebody placed a doll on her locker, a girl with her hands over the mouth.

"I had been told repeatedly to drop the lawsuit, and then I come in and see this doll there."

Lewis-Bystrzycki said she also was passed over for promotions, and later was suspended for complaining too loud about sexual harassment.

After hearing two weeks of testimony, a jury on Monday sided with her on all of her claims, and awarded her $11,213,000 in damages.

Lewis-Bystrzycki said there were many times she considered giving up her lawsuit.

"I was really questioning if this was worth it. This is my career, and this is what I love, and they took it away, and they were ugly with taking it away. They were ugly. They were gunning for me. They were gunning for my career. It was write-up after write-up after write-up," she said.

Lewis-Bystrzycki has not been able to find another job as a firefighter, but hopes to return to that line of work.

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