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FIGHTING SON'S ILLNESS, A FATHER LOSES HIS JOB

Despite federal law, his bosses at UPS objected to all his leave time, a suit says.

Days after his youngest son survived a heart transplant, Michael Calhoun made sure he was the first one to cradle the boy in his arms.

It was May 2008, and after four months of waiting, doctors had finally found a new heart for 1-year-old Daniel, who along with his two other brothers suffers from a rare heart-related disease called Barth syndrome.

But his son's surgery wasn't the only thing on Calhoun's mind. Amid a year that involved moving across the country, finding new schools and dealing with three chronically ill children, Calhoun had another worry.

Things weren't going so well at work.

Calhoun, a 40-year-old father of five, says that UPS, a company he'd worked at for three years, fired him in the fall when he missed too much time from work to care for his sick sons.

He filed a civil lawsuit last month in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, claiming that the company violated his rights under the Family Medical Leave Act and committed disability discrimination.

"There was a change in their attitude toward me when I started taking off time under FMLA," Calhoun said. "We never thought in a million years that I'd be fired."

UPS disputes Calhoun's claims.

"We don't believe that any discrimination took place," said Susan Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for the UPS corporate office in Atlanta. "Mr. Calhoun was given all the leave he requested."

Calhoun began working for UPS in October 2005. At that time, he and his family were living in Arizona. They moved to Lakeland in 2007, and Calhoun eventually ended up in the company's Clearwater office.

Everything seemed fine until Calhoun's youngest son, Daniel, got severely sick in early 2008 because of complications from Barth syndrome.

Barth syndrome is a rare genetic disease that is passed on to boys through the x-chromosome. The disease is marked by heart problems, short stature, muscle weakness and fewer white blood cells. There is no specific treatment or cure.

Only 50 families worldwide are known to be affected by the disease, which is thought to be underdiagnosed, according to the National Institutes of Health.

The Calhouns are one of only five Barth syndrome families in Florida.

Their case is even more unusual because three of their sons - 13-year-old Ben, 8-year-old John and 3-year-old Daniel - have the disease. A fourth son and a daughter do not have it.

The boys with Barth syndrome require loads of pills and medicines. They must frequently visit doctors and specialists. They consistently contend with weakness and, because of vulnerable immune systems, they are susceptible to other illnesses.

The Calhouns knew their other two sons had health problems, but didn't find out it was a genetic disease until around the time Daniel was born.

It turned out that Daniel had the most severe form of Barth syndrome in the family. The Calhouns found that out on Valentine's Day 2008, when the then-1-year-old was rushed to All Children's Hospital with heart failure. If Daniel didn't get a new heart soon, doctors told the couple, he could die.

So as his son was put on the transplant list, Calhoun signed up for the family and medical leave provision, a federal law that in place since 993.

He received 12 weeks of unpaid intermittent leave, which could be taken during a 12-month period.

But Calhoun said that every time he would take time off to care for his family, his division manager would pull him aside and question his loyalty and dedication to the company.

"He would ask me on a regular basis what I was doing. ... and I told him that my responsibility was to my family," Calhoun said.

Calhoun said he tried to make up for it by working long hours and taking off time only if he absolutely needed to.

"More often than not, I worked 60 to 75 hours a week just to maintain my position," he said.

But Calhoun said it seemed as if his bosses resented his absences. Things came to a head in fall 2008.

At the end of September, a couple of months after Daniel's transplant, Calhoun said he asked his bosses for some leave time to care for his kids.

The toddler was sick again, and the load was heavy for Calhoun's wife, Angela, a stay-at-home mom.

Daniel was not only adjusting to a new heart, but his white blood cell count had plummeted, weakening his immune system and withering his strength. His health problems required both parents to be home.

A few days later, when Calhoun was back at work, he was pulled into a meeting with his bosses, he said.

They accused him of being undependable, untrustworthy and again questioned his priorities, he said. They had hired a private investigator to keep an eye on him, he said. Calhoun said he had seen the man sitting in a car, watching him, outside his home.

Calhoun said his bosses gave him an ultimatum: Sign a piece of paper saying you've resigned or be fired.

Calhoun said the company offered him a month's salary - about $4,500 - but he refused to resign.

Instead, he hired an attorney. At the point Calhoun and UPS parted ways, he had taken seven of the 12 weeks allowed under the leave act, he said.

Rosenberg, the UPS spokeswoman, said Calhoun resigned during that October 2008 meeting, which she said was called because of concerns by local management.

Rosenberg wouldn't go into detail about the concerns, but said they were connected to Calhoun's leave.

Calhoun's attorney, Angela Outten of Palm Harbor, said UPS illegally discriminated against him for having a sick child. The company violated the leave act, Americans with Disabilities Act, Florida Civil Rights Act and Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the lawsuit alleges.

Outten said she's seeing more cases like this in bad economic times.

"I think employees with issues like this are targeted because they're seen as more of a problem than someone who can come in every day and work," Outten said.

The lawsuit has added another layer of stress to Calhoun and his family.

"As a father, my identity has been built around being a provider," Calhoun said. "To have that taken away ... it's a big blow to your self-esteem."

The family has had to downsize, moving recently to a home that is 800 square feet smaller than the home they had in St. Petersburg, which they got right after Daniel's surgery in order to be closer to doctors.

The children's health care costs are now being paid for by Medicaid. Church and family members also have helped.

Calhoun, who is receiving unemployment checks, is taking classes at the University of South Florida. He's pursuing a chemical engineering degree, which he hopes will lead to a career that could ultimately help his kids and others with Barth syndrome.

Calhoun said the lawsuit isn't about the money, but about principle.

"If they're doing it to me, who else are they doing it to? This isn't vindictive," he said. "I just want my life back."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or kstanley@sptimes.com.

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