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Thursday, February 3, 2011

University Makes a Habit of Firing Employees Over "Computer Issues"


Regular readers know that I was fired at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), after 19 years on the job, for alleged misuse of my work computer. In fact, as we've already shown here at Legal Schnauzer, I was fired because I write a progressive blog, one that has focused heavily on corruption in the Bush-era prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman.

Age and gender discrimination, and a number of other issues, are present in my case. But I've presented tape-recorded evidence here, and in federal court, that proves without a doubt that I was targeted at UAB primarily because of the Siegelman-related content on this blog.

It turns out I'm not the only UAB employee who has been canned over dubious allegations regarding use of workplace computers. Much the same thing happened to Rabin and Prabin Pant, who had been systems analysts at UAB for almost four years when they were fired in February 2008. Interestingly, their termination came roughly three months before my firing in May 2008.

The Pants were born in Nepal and are of Indian descent. They filed a lawsuit on April 23, 2010, in U.S. District Court in Birmingham, alleging race and national-origin discrimination against the University of Alabama Board of Trustees (the official entity that oversees UAB) and Melissa Kelly, director of Health System Information Services at UAB.

The Pants' nationality and their choice of an attorney add an interesting twist to the story. We have reported about the case of Dr. Seema Gupta, a former medical trainee from India who was subjected to gross discrimination at the UAB family-medicine residency program in Huntsville. In fact, UAB is developing quite a history of hypocrisy and discrimination toward individuals from India and South Asia:

UAB Makes Money Off India, While Cheating Trainees From India

Birmingham attorney John Saxon, the same lawyer who handled the Gupta case, is representing the Pants. The Gupta case did not have a positive or lawful outcome, and here is how we reported it in an earlier post:

I covered the Seema Gupta trial in Birmingham and came away realizing that international workers and trainees can not only be exploited in the workplace; they can be treated unfairly in U.S. courts.

Seema Gupta, represented by Birmingham attorney John Saxon, prevailed on her claim of religious discrimination. But an Alabama jury, contrary to the overwhelming evidence presented at trial, found against her on claims of national-origin discrimination and constructive discharge--and awarded a paltry sum in monetary damages that probably did not even cover Dr. Gupta's travel expenses to attend the trial.

While UAB was found to have discriminated, the overall outcome of the Seema Gupta trial raises serious questions about the fundamental fairness of the U.S. federal court system.

Court records indicate that Saxon made no effort to appeal a jury verdict that clearly was at odds with the facts and the law in the Gupta case. We can only hope the Pants have a better outcome because it appears they were treated shamefully on the job--something quite a few people are experiencing at UAB.

I can make this prediction without hesitation: UAB, the federal-court system, and the Birmingham legal establishment (perhaps including Saxon) will put up a wall to ensure that the Pants never learn the real reasons they were cheated out of their jobs.

My termination undoubtedly was triggered by political forces external to the UAB campus who were uncomfortable about the content of my blog--which UAB's own "investigation" showed never was written on work time or with work equipment. (After learning this, UAB made vague allegations that I was "researching" my blog at work, although evidence in my federal lawsuit shows that wasn't true either.) My guess is that the Pants' termination also was driven by some external political force, but UAB will do its darnedest to make sure the Pants never learn who that was. And based on the Gupta case, I doubt that John Saxon will make a serious effort to find out.

UAB recruited the Pants from Omaha, Nebraska, because of their specialized knowledge in Cerner software systems. Throughout their employment, they received good to excellent performance reviews and merit-based pay raises--just as I had throughout my 19 years at UAB.

Things suddenly and inexplicably turned dark for the Pants, as can easily happen in the toxic environment that currently exists at UAB. From the lawsuit:

On February 8, 2008, the Pants were called into a meeting with eight to nine UAB officials. At the meeting, the UAB officials asked questions about their fax, phone, and e-mail usage. They were frightened, confused, and overwhelmed by those questions because they were not informed of the purpose or reasons behind them.
After the meeting, the Pants were handed letters stating that they were being placed on administrative leave. The letters were handed to them immediately, leading them to believe that they had been prepared in advance of the meeting.
The letters stated that they were being placed on administrative leave without pay for possible violations of UAB policies.
At that point, they were escorted out of the office by UAB police detectives.

That sounds eerily familiar to your humble blogger. I, too, was called into such a meeting without warning. I was questioned repeatedly about my blog for probably 45 minutes to an hour, even though UAB now claims my termination had nothing to do with my blog. I, too, was placed on administrative leave and given a letter that had been prepared in advance. I was not allowed to return to my desk to gather my personal belongings, although I was not escorted out by UAB police. According to an affidavit from a UAB official in my lawsuit, however, police were called to stand outside the door during one meeting with me.

And UAB wonders why I'm alleging gender discrimination. Do you think that would have been done for a meeting with a female employee?

The Pants' complaint makes it clear that, just as in my case, UAB's real concern had to do with matters outside of work:

Anita Bonasera, a UAB human resources employee, stated that she didn't care about the use of UAB's phones, fax, or e-mail, but that she was concerned that they may have been using UAB-paid consultants for their outside consulting work. They unequivocally denied it.

Interestingly, Anita Bonasera plays a starring role in our Legal Schnauzer story. She admitted to me in a tape-recorded conversation that I was targeted because of the content of my blog, especially about the Siegelman case. That issue is not in doubt, and you can hear a portion of the conversation here:

Audio: UAB and the Cost of Blogging About the Siegelman Case

As you can tell from this audio, UAB accused me of engaging in "non work-related activity," even though I was doing exactly what my supervisor had told me, and my colleagues, to do--to keep up with Alabama-related articles when we had a chance. The Siegelman case undoubtedly was the biggest such story at the time--and it involved a former ex oficio president of UAB's board (Siegelman) and UAB's most famous alumnus (Richard Scrushy).

Melissa Kelly, the Pants' director, made similar charges against them. From the complaint:

Ms. Kelly showed the Plaintiffs some of their e-mail correspondence, documents they had saved on the computer, and phone-usage records. She accused them of violating UAB policies. As is true in any office, they were not the only employees who made a few phone calls or sent a few e-mails on company time. They also reminded Ms. Kelly that two and a half years prior, Plaintiffs had asked for her approval to engage in external consulting, to which she agreed.

What had the environment been like in the Pants' office? Pretty loose, for most people:

Plaintiffs are not the only employees who consulted with external entities. Kevin Smith, a white male and former UAB employee who was in the same position and department as Plaintiffs, started a company called Preceptor Consulting.
Mr. Smith was not disciplined or fired; in fact, he was given Fridays off to work on his consulting company. 
Andy Flynn, another white employee, also used UAB's Internet resources, phone, and fax machines to facilitate his private business. His business is called HPG consulting company. His external consulting is common knowledge throughout the department.
Virtually everyone in Plaintiffs' department used e-mail, phone, and fax machines for personal reasons. In addition, employees such as Mr. Smith, Robert Kirby, and Bill Braman were permitted to work four-day work weeks. Plaintiffs were not given the same consideration, despite asking. 

The atmosphere in my office also was relatively loose, which I think most of us appreciated. I'm not aware of anyone in our group, however, who used UAB equipment to facilitate a private business. I sure as heck didn't do that--I didn't even facilitate my personal blog, from which I've never made a dime. According to UAB's own records, I violated no policies at all. The You & UAB Handbook states that relatively minor infractions are to be handled with progressive discipline--an oral warning, followed by written warning and possible termination, if necessary. I never received any such warnings, under university policy, about computer usage or anything else. My personnel file shows that I was doing my job, within university guidelines--and my most recent performance review had been positive.

The same apparently was true with the Pants because progressive discipline was not applied to them either. My guess is that the Pants, in their outside consulting work, unknowingly stumbled into a project that caused someone in the Alabama political hierarchy to become uncomfortable. That almost certainly is the real reason they were fired.

Whoever caused the Pants to be wrongfully terminated would be subject to major civil penalties--and criminal statutes might even be in play. That's why UAB will try to move mountains to hide that person's identity. And I doubt if John Saxon will try very hard to find out.

Here is the Pants' federal complaint:

Pant Complaint

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

Embarrassment is the only thing a University understands. Did they have an EOE representative at all go over anything with you? Of course not with the ruling University related Medical facilities are gov. entities and cannot be sued I assume that includes UAB but you could do a youtube and pass it from FB to FB. With all these Students that go it might get some coverage...