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VA retaliation lawsuits near final phase

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Published:   |   Updated: September 1, 2014 at 09:46 PM

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For Kendra DiMaria, a former law enforcement officer with the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System police department, her problems with management began in the summer of 2009 when a supervisor began making sexual innuendos, according to a lawsuit she and other former and current officers filed in 2010 against the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The lawsuit alleges the VA engaged in “a pattern and practice of retaliation and hostile retaliatory work environment” toward those making Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints or serving as witnesses on behalf of others.

This summer, DiMaria reached a settlement of the lawsuit with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Two other officers settled last year, and several other officers involved in the suit have reached an agreement in principle with the VA, according to U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Lee Bentley, who said he hopes the agreement can be finalized before an October deadline.

In its response to the lawsuit, the VA denied the allegations about retaliation and hostile work environment.

DiMaria says she received $300,000, the most of any of the plaintiffs and the maximum allowed by law.

Pointing to the VA’s zero-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment, DiMaria wants to know what, if any, action has been taken against her former supervisors.

“Why does it state the VA has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and yet I was sexually harassed and when I reported it I was targeted?” she asked via text message last week. “The victim was at fault. How?”

Jason Dangel, a spokesman for the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center at Bay Pines, on Friday said that he was unaware of any disciplinary action and said that generally speaking, a settlement does not indicate liability on either side.

According to the lawsuit, DiMaria said she turned down a training assignment in Little Rock, Arkansas, in August 2009 because her supervisor wanted to ride with her and the trip would have required an overnight stay en route. DiMaria claimed in the lawsuit that her problems escalated after that.

Patrol supervisor Manuel Morales began yelling at DiMaria, according to the lawsuit, singled DiMaria out for discipline and forced her to work 10-hour shifts standing up. DiMaria, in the lawsuit, also claimed she refused “his advances” and objected “to his inappropriate sexual comments.”

Morales retaliated against her then-husband, Chad Di Maria, who also was a plaintiff, according to the lawsuit. Because of the situation, the suit claims, Chad Di Maria was not promoted.

Later, after Kendra DiMaria filed complaints with the VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Morales “on several occasions followed her and attempted to listen in on her conversations,” according to the lawsuit.

In its response, the VA denied those allegations.

For DiMaria, there are concerns beyond what happened to her.

A few weeks ago her ex-husband, who settled his case last year, committed suicide, she said.

“The events at Bay Pines took a toll on these officers and unfortunately contributed to the end of my marriage. Many would say (friends, family, me) that Chad Di Maria was not the same thereafter,” she said in a text message, using her ex-husband’s spelling of his last name.

The lawsuit contains several examples of how officers, who are still awaiting a final settlement, say leadership retaliated against them.

Darin Oakes, an American Indian, claimed in the lawsuit that after he complained to a hospital assistant director that Police Chief Robert Shogren referred to him as “cowboy,” a term that “was very derogatory to a Native American,” Shogren began treating him differently, including being “deprived of certain new equipment which others received.”

The VA denied that in its response.

Walter Slam was a combat veteran of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, where he suffered traumatic brain injury, according to the lawsuit. Slam was receiving treatment for his injury on Tuesdays, the only day it was available at the Bay Pines clinic. But according to the lawsuit, on Nov. 10, 2008, Lt. Carl Lingenfelter, at Shogren’s direction, “improperly verbally counseled Slam that he was abusing sick leave and had shown a ‘pattern’ of sick leave because the leave was always on Tuesdays.”

The VA, in its response, admitted that Lingenfelter asked Slam about his use of sick leave to take off his full 10-hour shift and asked that Slam return to work after his appointment. But the VA denied the rest of Slam’s allegations about his interaction over the sick leave issue.

Another officer, Jason Atkinson, complained in the lawsuit that after he served as a witness in three EEOC complaints against police leadership, he was reassigned by Shogren with a “humiliating loss of job responsibility” that was “effectively a demotion that did not involve real police work, but basically involved duties of a security or door guard.”

The VA, in its response, admitted the reassignment but not the effect.

Bentley, the U.S. attorney, said the parties have until October to come to a final agreement and that it is his hope there will be a final settlement before then.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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