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Young VA settling retaliation lawsuit by its police officers

The C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole. [MELISSA LYTTLE | Times]

The C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Seminole. [MELISSA LYTTLE | Times]

The C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center and up to eight officers who served on the facility's internal police force have tentatively agreed to settle a 4-year-old lawsuit that accused the hospital's leaders of retaliating against them for workplace discrimination complaints.

The settlement, whose terms are not public, comes five years after a federal judge in a separate case warned leaders of the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Seminole to stop retaliating against employees who file such complaints.

That November 2009 warning came several months after a jury slapped the facility, then called Bay Pines, with a $3.73 million verdict in the case of four employees, including three doctors, who said their careers were sidetracked after they complained about problems in their workplace.

A document recently filed in U.S. District Court in Tampa said the case filed by the officers has been settled but requires final approval by U.S. Department of Justice officials, which is expected before the end of October.

The VA, DOJ lawyers and an attorney representing the police employees declined comment pending final settlement approval. Such settlements usually contain a stipulation that the defendant, in this case the VA, makes no admission of wrongdoing.

The VA has previously denied the allegations in the lawsuit.

A trial would have offered a potentially embarrassing glimpse into the Young VA's small police force and its operations. Police leadership and officers have long been at odds over allegations that include sexual harassment, racial discrimination, physical altercations among officers and even disputes concerning policing strategies.

All sizable VA hospitals have an internal police force, which at the Young VA numbers roughly 50 employees.

Bickering among officers and between officers and management has been ongoing for years. And much of it became public with the filing by police employees of multiple Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints, and then the lawsuit.

The police employees' attorneys, Joe Magri and Ward Meythaler, have alleged hospital leaders have long demonstrated a pattern of singling out workers who file EEOC complaints by denying them promotions and preferable assignments, making their work life difficult and derailing their careers.

Their lawsuit noted the Young VA's director, Wallace Hopkins, while waiting to testify in an EEOC case in 2010, was overheard telling police Chief Robert Shogren he "did not care how many police officers (the chief) fired and that he could fire them all." The chief laughed, the suit said. Hopkins later said he did not recall making the statement, the suit said.

This occurred a year after a federal judge ordered Hopkins and other hospital leaders to receive "remedial instruction" on preventing workplace discrimination and retaliation. Hopkins retired in 2011.

VA officials at times seem frustrated at Magri's legal challenges to the agency, perhaps demonstrated when a human resources specialist told a police officer complaining about the Young VA police chief to "stop drinking the Magri Kool-Aid," according to court documents.

The lawsuit contains numerous allegations of workplace discrimination or misbehavior that the plaintiffs said was tolerated by the VA.

Former Young VA police Officer Darin Oakes objected to Shogren calling him "cowboy." Oakes said in the suit that he thought being called that was racially insensitive.

After Officer Michael Corcoran, a supervisor with the most seniority in the Young VA police department, spoke out against the chief calling Oakes a "cowboy," the suit said, Corcoran found himself assigned to the communications center. Corcoran, the suit said, viewed this as a demotion.

The lawsuit also said Officer Walter Slam, a combat veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, was receiving medical care at the Young VA that was only available on Tuesdays. But the suit said his superiors counseled him for abusing sick leave because he has "shown a pattern" of taking his sick time the same day of the week — Tuesdays.

Officer Kendra DiMaria, who was married to another officer at the time, accused a Young VA supervisor of sexually harassing her and then retaliating against her when she rebuffed his advances.

Her husband, Young VA Officer Chad DiMaria, said he was denied a promotion to sergeant after his wife refused a supervisor's advances, the suit said. The DiMarias later divorced.

Chad DiMaria's legal claim against the VA was settled in 2013. DiMaria, 38, died last month.

Former Young VA Officer Carlton Hooker, who has unsuccessfully sued the VA for workplace discrimination, questioned in an Aug. 24 letter to Young VA director Suzanne Klinker why the VA had not disciplined the supervisor accused by Kendra DiMaria of sexual harassment.

Hooker noted the VA has a "zero tolerance" policy against sexual harassment.

"I ask that you do the right thing and remove those individuals responsible for the turmoil and retaliatory actions" in the Young VA police department, Hooker said.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

Young VA settling retaliation lawsuit by its police officers 09/01/14 [Last modified: Monday, September 1, 2014 10:32pm]

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