Thursday, September 24, 2009

Workplace Victims Earn Victories, Big and Small

As we have noted here at Legal Schnauzer, folks who decide to fight back against workplace wrongdoing often face a stacked deck. Employers usually have more resources than individuals who have faced some unsavory act in the workplace. And the federal bench, stacked with Republican appointees, often is not sympathetic to the cause of employees.

But the little guy sometimes can overcome the odds and land a serious blow to the jaw of an abusive employer. In fact, we've seen several recent examples of just that. And it's encouraging to note that the mainstream press seems to be paying attention to workplace issues. Some highlights:

Florida VA Hospital Hit With Big Jury Verdict
A federal jury in Tampa, Florida, has awarded $3.73 million to four women who faced retaliation after filing discrimination claims against the Bay Pines VA Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

Reports William R. Levesque of the St. Petersburg Times:

The jury's decision came after a three-week trial that cast an unflattering spotlight on work conditions at the hospital, where the plaintiffs say a climate of fear exists among employees afraid to speak out.

The female plaintiffs said supervisors opened a concerted campaign to discredit them and push them out of their jobs after they filed employment discrimination claims on a variety of issues.

Those complaints included allegations that administrators discriminated against women by denying them good job assignments and that older doctors were being unfairly attacked by administrators.

The award is expected to be reduced, but the verdict still strikes a blow for victims of workplace retaliation. Reports the Times:

The VA's liability for damages awarded for emotional pain and anguish is capped at $300,000 per plaintiff under federal law, so the verdict is expected to be reduced by a judge to $1.33 million.

VA administrators, however, might not be out of the woods:

Attorney Joe Magri said he will suggest to members of Congress and the VA that an investigation be opened into illegal retaliation by Bay Pines administrators against those who file Equal Employment Opportunity claims for workplace discrimination.

"The evidence showed that the retaliation went to the highest levels of the Bay Pines administration," said Magri, who tried the case with co-counsel Ward Meythaler. "The appropriate regulatory agencies need to look into what's going on there and why it's going on."

California Newspaper Spotlights Retaliation Case
Speaking of the VA, you would think that a federal agency would have some clue about how to follow federal employment laws. But you would be wrong.

We recently posted about Ann Williams and Jamie Fox, two women who were fired at the VA's Oakland Regional Center after speaking up about anti-gay harassment and a hostile working environment.

Now one of California's major newspapers, the Oakland Tribune, has picked up on the story. Reporter Angela Hill writes:

Just a few days before she was fired in June 2008, Ann Williams of El Cerrito, a Navy veteran and former mayor of Pinole who is openly lesbian, was fed up with months of taunts and anti-gay comments from a male co-worker at the Oakland Regional Office of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Matters had reached the point where she feared for her safety, she said.

So she went to her superiors, complaining of anti-gay harassment and a hostile work environment. Another co-worker, Navy veteran Jamie Foxx, of Sebastopol, a straight woman, came forward as a witness.

Less than a week afterward, both were fired on the same day, their termination letters citing poor performance during their training period despite the fact the two have documents showing they received positive reviews not long before.

The Tribune article provides insight into the human cost of workplace discrimination:

In the meantime, neither has been able to find work, Williams' car is about to be repossessed, and both say the emotional toll has been immeasurable.

"I never experienced anything like this in my life," Williams, 59, said during an interview in her home. "I'm in tears all the time about this. We are professionals. We wanted to do something good and work with veterans. And this is how we were treated in the VA. We want (the VA) to be held accountable, and we want back pay and compensation."

"This was a career for me, with potential for advancement in the VA," Fox said. "I just spoke up on Ann's behalf on principle. I felt I did the right thing and that I was protected under EEOC rules, but apparently not."

Missouri Whistleblower Receives $500,000
A former aide to Missouri Governor Matt Blunt has received a $500,000 settlement in a case alleging that he was fired after raising concerns about the administration's e-mail deletions.

Blunt, a Republican, had maintained that Scott Eckersley was fired for legitimate reasons. But a letter from Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster defended Eckersley's reputation and concluded that—contrary to public assertions from Blunt's administration—Eckersley had offered advice about Missouri's open-records law.

Governor Jay Nixon, who succeeded Blunt in January, had promised a letter clearing Eckersley's name. But the Nixon letter did not go far enough, Eckersley said. Reports the Kansas City Star:

Koster's letter is more specific. It states that evidence refutes assertions that Eckersley never offered advice about the Sunshine Law; that Eckersley had received permission to do limited legal work for his family while employed by the governor's office; and that there is no basis for accusations that Eckersley was possibly using illegal drugs.

“When reading the two letters together, it's clear that this is an exoneration, and that I accomplished what I set out to do,” Eckersley said. “The principles in this suit are what were important to me, and one of those principles was clearing my name both personally and professionally.”

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