HIV-infected worker fired by VA should get job back, judge rules $260,000 also urged for medical center clerk

January 14, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A former clerk at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore who was fired shortly after telling his bosses that he had tested positive for HIV should receive his job back and roughly $260,000 in penalties and back pay, an administrative judge for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled.

Judge Marlin D. Schreffler concluded that the hospital had discriminated against the former clerk, Carl L. Mack, who became unable to pay rent on his Baltimore apartment and lost custody of his young daughter after he was fired in May 1995.

As a result, the judge found, Mack became homeless for several months and was forced to seek shelter in housing frequented by drug users and criminals. In despair, Mack, too, turned to drugs.

"Indeed, except for suicide, it is hard to imagine a more devastating impact that discrimination could have upon an individual," Schreffler wrote late last month in a 59-page recommendation made available to a reporter.

The VA has until mid-February to adopt the recommendation, contest it in federal court or try to modify it. If the ruling is accepted by VA officials, the federal agency would also pay Mack's legal fees, which his union representatives estimated to be at least $25,000.

The damages would be paid from the VA's $208 million annual budget for Maryland.

VA officials refused to comment on Mack's case. Aides to Dennis Smith, director of the VA Medical System for Maryland, said they were unable to agree with Mack on the wording of a statement granting them permission to discuss his case.

Coupled with other allegations of bias against the Baltimore medical complex made by Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, Mack's case gained the support of Reps. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore and Albert R. Wynn of Prince George's County, as well as Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes. All four are Democrats.

Documents indicate that Mack made his complaint in the summer of 1995 but that Smith agreed to look into his charge only in November 1996 -- just as lawmakers had begun making inquiries.

"This young man came in, and he was so distraught," Cummings said. "It was one that cried out for somebody to look into."

Mack, a 31-year-old Army veteran, now lives with his parents in Pikesville. He began work as a medical clerk in February 1995, with a mild physical disability linked to his military service. Mack kept secret from his supervisors and his family the fact that he had previously tested positive for the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

When Mack did inform his supervisors of his condition, they fired him, saying he was unreliable and had had unexplained absences at work. They said they tried to find a job for him elsewhere at the center.

The judge ruled that Mack's bosses offered an implausible account of what had happened. Schreffler ruled that the hospital had not proved that Mack had failed to perform his job adequately and had discriminated against Mack by firing him. Trying to help him secure another job did not make up for that act, Schreffler wrote.

VA officials could have resolved the conflict much earlier by giving him his old job back, plus a modest settlement, said Mack.

"The case didn't have to go to court," he said.

Pub Date: 1/14/98

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