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Bay Pines police allege retaliation by VA

A group of Bay Pines VA Medical Center police officers has filed suit against the Department of Veterans Affairs, accusing the agency of retaliating against employees who come forward with workplace discrimination complaints.

The suit filed in Tampa federal court last week comes after a judge in November scolded Bay Pines for "discriminatory conduct" and barred Bay Pines leaders from any further retaliation against its 3,000 employees.

Bay Pines, located in St. Petersburg, is the nation's fifth-busiest veterans hospital with 95,000 patients treated last fiscal year.

The suit said that the seven current and former police officers named in the suit were disciplined, denied training, excluded from preferred assignments or passed over for promotion because they filed Equal Employment Opportunity complaints against Bay Pines or were witnesses in such cases.

Their workplace complaints ranged from a Native American officer being called "cowboy" by the police chief to an officer who also is a veteran being accused of abusing sick time for taking time off for treatment of his traumatic brain injury.

A female officer also accused a supervisor of making sexually explicit comments to her while they were working, according to the suit filed by Tampa attorneys Joe Magri and Ward Meythaler.

Federal law bars an agency such as the VA from retaliating against employees who file EEO complaints, but Magri said Bay Pines leaders seek to discourage such cases.

"This is something that needs to be addressed," Magri said in an interview on Tuesday. "And apparently the only way it's going to be addressed is through the legal system."

Some of the incidents noted in the lawsuit, Magri said, came after the judge's order barring additional retaliation.

The VA has previously denied discriminatory or retaliatory behavior. On Tuesday, Bay Pines officials declined to comment.

The current and former officers suing Bay Pines are Jason Atkinson, Darin Oakes, Walter Slam, Michael Corcoran, Matthew Gustin, Kendra DiMaria and Chad DiMaria.

The lawsuit said because of the pattern of retaliation by Bay Pines leaders, "a number of very good employees are afraid to come forward with information they have concerning discriminatory or retaliatory conduct and a number of very good employees have chosen to leave Bay Pines."

In July 2009, a group of Bay Pines employees, including several doctors, won a $3.73 million verdict against the VA after a federal jury agreed the VA had retaliated against them.

In November, U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom McCoun handed down an order severely chastising Bay Pines and ordered its leaders to undergo "remedial instruction" on preventing workplace discrimination and retaliation.

The judge also barred future discrimination and retaliatory behavior.

McCoun said court action was necessary because discriminatory behavior would continue without court intervention.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Bay Pines police allege retaliation by VA 07/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 11:24pm]
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