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DOCTOR, YOUNG VA SETTLE LAWSUIT

A specialist who says he was fired for being outspoken wins $500,000.

A former doctor at the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center who said he was ousted in 2008 for his outspokenness on patient safety and workplace discrimination issues has won a $500,000 settlement of his federal lawsuit.

The settlement by Dr. Jacques Durr, 66, who worked as a kidney specialist at the Seminole hospital, may be the largest individual settlement of a workplace discrimination lawsuit nationally against the Department of Veterans Affairs since at least 2009, according to a Treasury Department database of settlements.

Treasury records indicate the payment was finalized Oct. 21. Durr confirmed the amount when contacted by the Tampa Bay Times, noting his legal fees exceeded the payout.

In the last year, about $2 million in legal settlements have been paid to 13 current or former Young VA employees for complaints that included sexual harassment, racial discrimination and institutional retaliation involving those who speak out against management.

The settlements again put a spotlight on employment practices at a hospital that in 2009 was admonished by a federal judge for retaliating against workers who file claims under the Equal Employment Opportunity system. The judge did so after presiding over a trial that ended with a $3 million verdict against the hospital in favor of four employees, including three physicians.

The judge ordered remedial training on workplace practices for several Young VA leaders. The hospital now has different leadership, though management changes appeared unrelated to discrimination litigation.

"Legal arguments aside, any time the government uses taxpayers' hard-earned money to settle complaints, it's a tacit admission of wrongdoing," U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, recently said about settlements at the Young VA.

Miller said in a written statement that it was critical for the VA to show taxpayers that the settlements were justified.

"The only way to do that is to hold those whose actions led to the settlements accountable, and the department owes the public an explanation for the steps it is taking to do just that," he said.

Young VA spokesman Jason Dangel declined to discuss details of recent settlements. But he said the facility, one of the VA's busiest, has increased the staff that handles employment discrimination issues and worked to "foster a positive work environment."

"We are committed to ensuring equal employment opportunity, promoting workforce diversity, workplace inclusion and productively resolving conflicts to maintain a high-performing organization in service to America's veterans," Dangel said.

Durr is now director of the University of South Florida's Division of Nephrology and Hypertension.

"I had a very, very strong case," he said.

Durr began working at the VA in Colorado in 1985 and was a tenured professor at the University of Colorado before moving to the Young VA, then called Bay Pines, in 1992, when he founded the facility's nephrology department. Durr said he had outstanding performance evaluations throughout his career.

But he said problems began for him in 2003 after his complaints about a VA computer system that kept malfunctioning and so would not display patient information, thus endangering veterans.

Durr said he was outspoken inside the Young VA on discrimination issues and had been an advocate for ethnic minorities. Durr also in early 2008 was listed as a witness in the discrimination case that went to trial in 2009, which he said angered his bosses.

Durr, who also complained of unequal pay for older physicians, said hospital leaders manufactured a case to force him out of the hospital despite a national reputation in his field. This, Durr said, included false allegations that he was absent without leave, yelled at patients or staff and failed to respond to pages. Durr said supervisors also falsely claimed he refused to sign a memo.

"They were fishing to find something against me," Durr said. "They falsified document after document. It would have been shocking had it gone to trial. That's why they settled."

Federal records show retaliation against employees is the most common workplace discrimination complaint by VA workers who file claims, and critics of the agency say the VA has an abysmal record in seeking to punish whistle-blowers.

In settling employee lawsuits, the VA makes no admission of wrongdoing.

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

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