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Deaf employee awarded $135,000 in damages

March 14, 2002|BY SARAH MULLIN

A judge for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled in favor of a deaf employee at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg who sued the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, saying he had been discriminated against.

EEOC judge Donna Nutter Rodwell on Wednesday awarded Phillip Hensley $135,000 in damages.

In order to receive an award of damages, the complainant must demonstrate that he has been harmed as a result of the agency's discriminatory action; the extent, nature and severity of the harm, and the duration or expected duration of harm, according to the ruling.

Legal counsel for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the VA Office of Employee Discrimination Complaint Adjudication will decide whether the agency will appeal the decision or accept the judgment, said Barbara Corbin, assistant to VA Medical Center Executive Director George Moore.

"They will act accordingly and take action based on the evidence," she said Wednesday. She declined to comment further.

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Hensley alleged in the suit that while working in the carpentry shop as a painter at the VA Medical Center in Martinsburg he was subjected to a hostile work environment on a daily basis. The suit said that included teasing, slurs, gestures, derogatory jokes, pranks and comments regarding his disability.

Hensley began working at the hospital in 1986 as a painter.

As the result of a settlement of a previous EEOC suit filed in May 1998, he was promoted to the position of maintenance mechanic in August of that year, according to the ruling.

Susan Anderson, local president of the National Association of Government Employees, said she believed Hensley was tricked into the settlement of the 1998 case, which was filed after Hensley was passed over for the maintenance mechanic job.

"This case brought about all the harassment he had endured for years, but he never told anyone about it," Anderson said.

Harassing behavior and taunts included telling Hensley there was a phone call for him and banging the phone on the break room table, throwing objects or slapping his back with a newspaper to startle him, calling him nicknames, pointing, staring and laughing at him and mimicking his ways of communication, according to the ruling.

Another complaint was the failure to provide an interpreter during performance reviews, training, EEOC meetings and shop/staff meetings, according to the ruling.

Rodwell said the failure to provide an interpreter demonstrated a "reckless disregard for individuals with a disability, or unbelievable level of ignorance of the law, as to be contemptible."

The ruling states: "Complainant (Hensley) stated he did not report the behavior to management because his supervisor (Edward Robertson) was present at times and because it was 'embarrassing to know that people tease me because I can't hear' and because he was afraid of what would happen to him."

Rodwell said she found evidence that Hensley was continuously "subjected to teasing, jokes, slurs, gestures and comments, over the course of his tenure in the Carpentry Shop, a period of at least 12 years."

EEOC Chief Administrative Judge Francis Polito awarded $192,000 to Thomas Lineberg, an employee in the Medical Center's Carpentry Shop, who said he faced racial discrimination on the job.

The VA hasn't appealed that decision.

Lineberg and two other shop workers testified that Robertson observed the harassment of Hensley, and that they had complained to him about how the others treated Hensley and about racial tension in the shop, according to the ruling.

A phone call placed to Moore, the director of the Medical Center, was not returned Wednesday night.

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