Jury Awards Former Houston Firefighter $250k Over Nude Video

A Harris County jury has awarded a former Houston firefighter $250,000 in damages against her former captain for unlawfully sharing a nude video of her. Melinda Abbt filed suit against Captain John Chris Barrientes and the city, alleging sexual harassment and violation of a Texas law titled “Unlawful Disclosure or Promotion of Intimate Visual Material.”

The case was covered here in 2022 when the Fifth Circuit reinstated Abbt’s sexual harassment claims. Here are the facts as explained by the Fifth Circuit:

  • Beginning in 2003, Melinda Abbt worked for the City of Houston as a firefighter in the Houston Fire Department.
  • From 2006 until 2009, she was assigned to Station 18.
  • During that time, she served under Chris Barrientes, who was a Junior Captain at Station 18.
  • Station 18 was overseen by District Chief David Elliott, who also had purview over three to four other stations.
  • According to Barrientes’s deposition testimony, the actions which led to this case began around 2008, when Barrientes received an anonymous email.
  • That e-mail contained an intimate, nude video of Abbt that she had made privately for her husband and had saved on her personal laptop, which she had brought to the fire station.
  • Barrientes first watched the video in the captain’s office of Station 18.
  • He kept the video’s existence hidden for several days, and then brought it to the attention of District Chief Elliott.
  • When Barrientes told Elliott about Abbt’s nude video, Elliott asked to see it.
  • Barrientes then played the video for Elliott; another firefighter, Jonathan Sciortino, testified that he was also in the room and viewed the video.
  • Elliott did not report the video to human resources or to a supervisor.
  • Barrientes also continued to watch the nude video of Abbt multiple times over the next several years.
  • Abbt learned of these events on May 18, 2017, when Elliott confessed to Abbt’s husband (also a member of the Fire Department) that Elliott had seen a nude video of Melinda Abbt.
  • Upon learning that her personal, intimate video had been seen by other firefighters, Abbt was “completely distraught” and “disgusted.”

Both Abbt and her husband left the department. Captain Barrienter was suspended and later demoted. Chief Elliott was suspended and later retired. Abbt’s suit was originally filed in Harris County District Court, but removed to US District Court by the city based on the Title VII sexual harassment allegations.

It is not clear from the news reports what the ultimate outcome of the sexual harassment claims against the city was, but according to the Houston Chronical, the $250,000 state court judgment was awarded against Captain Barrienter. It broke down as follows: $80,000 for mental anguish, $50,000, and $120,000 in attorneys fees. The jury took less than an hour to deliberate.

For those who may be interested, the Texas law on Unlawful Disclosure or Promotion of Intimate Visual Material consist of two parts, one criminal one civil. The criminal statute is Penal Code Chapter 21, Sec. 21.16. The civil statute is Chapter 98B, Sec. 98B.002.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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