Judge rebukes Bay Pines VA leaders

TAMPA — Four women who won a $3.7 million verdict in July against the Bay Pines VA Medical Center thought the big award would be a hard lesson learned for the facility's administrators.

But even after a jury decided that Bay Pines illegally retaliated against the women for filing workplace discrimination complaints, none of Bay Pines leaders were dismissed or reprimanded.

"The message Bay Pines gave employees is, 'No matter what you do, nothing is going to happen. We're not going to change,' " said Dr. Claudia Cote, one of the four who won the verdict.

That changed Monday when a federal judge offered a stunning rebuke of administrators at the nation's fourth-busiest veterans hospital, barring them from any further retaliation against their work force of 3,000 employees over discrimination complaints.

And the judge ordered administrators back to school, requiring Bay Pines director Wallace Hopkins, his chief of staff and his chief of medicine to undergo "remedial instruction" on preventing workplace discrimination and retaliation.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Tom McCoun said his order is necessary because "discriminatory conduct" would continue without court intervention.

"Indeed, it appears that no changes have been made at all at Bay Pines VA in response to the verdicts in this case," McCoun's order said.

A spokeswoman at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg declined comment, saying she had not yet seen the judge's order. Administrators have denied allegations of retaliation or discrimination.

Cote, who along with the other three plaintiffs still works at Bay Pines, said the judge's order sends a clear message to management that it must respect the law. (Because the law caps jury awards for pain and anguish, the final verdict had been expected to be reduced to $1.33 million.)

Federal law forbids retaliation against employees who file a complaint of workplace discrimination.

"The attitude after the trial is that there has been no change in the culture or atmosphere at Bay Pines," said Cote, a 17-year employee of the Department of Veterans Affairs. "There has been no accountability after the verdict. Nothing has changed. It's just a continued denial of wrongdoing."

If the court were to find that Bay Pines violated the terms of McCoun's order, hospital administrators could face sanctions, including fines.

Joe Magri, a Tampa attorney representing the four women, said, "I'm hopeful the climate at Bay Pines will now change."

McCoun also specifically barred Bay Pines from taking any disciplinary action without an independent review by someone outside the hospital against the four women who sued.

Aside from Cote, the four women are Dr. Sally Zachariah, Dr. Diane Gowski and Roxanne Lainhart-Bronner, who lawyers said was punished for speaking out against retaliation.

The four women painted an unflattering portrait of work life inside Bay Pines during a three-week trial in U.S. District Court in Tampa, saying their bosses made their work lives miserable after they alleged sex and age discrimination.

They received poor work evaluations from supervisors who also denied them choice assignments with higher pay, their lawyers argued.

They said management specifically targeted the Equal Employment Opportunity system, in which workers who allege discrimination can file complaints.

Hopkins and Dr. George Van Buskirk, medical chief of staff, and others wanted to crack down on those who filed discrimination complaints, the women said. The result: Complaints fell by over 50 percent.

Lawyers pointed to one 2007 memo as proof of discrimination.

Written by a Bay Pines program support assistant — not one of the plaintiffs — it said her boss warned her, "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 on yourself."

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

Judge rebukes Bay Pines VA leaders 11/23/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 23, 2009 10:27pm]

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