TAMPA — The employees at the Bay Pines VA Medical Center said their bosses made their work lives miserable after they filed employment discrimination claims at the St. Petersburg hospital.
They often felt helpless as they watched their professional reputations attacked by supervisors who denied them choice assignments with higher pay and gave them poor job evaluations.
They are helpless no more.
A federal jury Thursday awarded the four women, including three doctors, $3.73 million in damages after deciding that the administration at Bay Pines, the nation's fourth-busiest veterans hospital, violated the law by retaliating against them.
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.
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 women said they were thankful the jury vindicated them.
"We were just standing up for what is right," said Dr. Claudia Cote, 48, the lead plaintiff. "Now, hopefully, all other physicians will be able to be more forceful" in expressing opinions about patient care "and operate without the fear of retaliation. This is good for our patients."
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."
Magri said he represents other Bay Pines employees who allege similar retaliation in cases at various stages in the legal system.
A VA spokeswoman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict.
Bay Pines officials declined to comment beyond a short written statement saying the hospital "makes every attempt to promote a workplace free of discrimination where employees can focus on our important mission of caring for America's veterans."
The verdict broke down like this:
Cote was awarded $2 million for emotional pain and anguish and $80,000 in economic losses. Dr. Sally Zachariah, 56, was awarded $1 million and $90,000, respectively; Dr. Diane Gowski, 48, was awarded $250,000 and $16,000; and Roxanne Lainhart-Bronner, 38, was awarded $300,000 for emotional pain.
Lainhart-Bronner was punished by her superiors after speaking out against the retaliation taking place against the others, Magri said.
Magri told jurors that the leaders of Bay Pines, including director Wallace Hopkins and Dr. George Van Buskirk, the medical chief of staff, cracked down on employees who filed EEO complaints despite a federal law that forbids retaliation.
As a result, EEO complaints were reduced by a "huge" number in the last several years, Magri said. Court records indicate Bay Pines achieved at least a 50 percent reduction, though actual figures are not available.
The women testified that employees knew that if they filed a complaint they were putting their jobs on the line. The plaintiffs' EEO claims never went to a hearing and were dropped before trial.
Magri said that retaliation was demonstrated by a 2007 memo written by a Bay Pines program support assistant — not one of the plaintiffs — who was warned against filing a discrimination complaint.
The assistant said her supervisor told her, according to the memo, "If I were you, I wouldn't file an EEO complaint. Trust me, you don't want to file. If you file an EEO complaint, you're only going to make it harder for yourself."
All four of the plaintiffs still work at Bay Pines, and all of them said they are committed to caring for veterans and intend to stay.
They said life at the hospital has been difficult during litigation. Often, they said, co-workers are reluctant to even talk to them for fear administrators will target them, too.
"We may still need protection," Gowski said. "I think we'll still have the fear. But we know the spotlight is on Bay Pines. So I think there's going to be less direct retaliation."
Cote said she doesn't fear going back to work next week after winning a large verdict against her employer.
"We're going back with our heads held high," she said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.