Nuisance suits on the rise — (Ocala Star-Banner)

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Ocala Star-Banner (FL)

November 26, 1994

Author: The Associated Press

[]TEMPLE TERRACE — Joe Hindman admits he stole from parked cars on his way to work, lifted thousands of dollars from the purses of fellow workers in the office and kept a handgun hidden in his briefcase.

But when GTE Data Services fired Hindman from his computer programming job two years ago, he sued.   Hindman claims the firing was illegal discrimination against the disabled — since his behavior was due to a chemical imbalance caused by the anti-depressant Prozac.

A nuisance suit? Hardly.   A federal judge refused to throw out the case this summer. Attorneys expect a trial early next year.

Like thousands of workers who believe they have grievances, Hindman is suing through the Americans With Disabilities Act. Experts say more and more employers are being hit with discrimination claims never envisioned when the law was passed in 1990.

Such lawsuits fuel calls by conservatives to rewrite the law. Advocates for the disabled worry a backlash could gut the ADA.   “The most serious thing we’re facing is the trivialization of the law,” said Carol Ann Beyer, executive director of the Governor’s Alliance for the Employment of Disabled Citizens in Tallahassee.

“We don’t want the law seen as a guarantee a person can come into the workplace and can’t be dismissed for any reason.”   No one knows how many of nearly 30,000 complaints filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission through last June moved into the courts. (Florida, with 2,198 charges, ranked behind only Texas.)

But the number is skyrocketing, a labor law publication shows.  The Bureau of National Affairs reported 14 court decisions on ADA employment cases in 1993. For the first six months of this year the number is 44.

“I tell our members, ‘You think ADA stands for ‘Americans With Disabilities Act,’ ” said Whit Collins of the West Coast Employers Association in Tampa. “It actually stands for, ‘Attorneys’ Dreams Answered.’ ”   Some dreams are fettered only by the imagination.

News of Hindman’s case shot through the grapevine of lawyers and personnel directors this fall. Among management advocates, the Palm Harbor man has become a symbol for ADA abuses.  “We’re always concerned the ADA could do something like this,” said Tom Gonzales, an attorney representing GTE Data Services.

“Number one, he wasn’t disabled. Number two, his behavior was not caused by a disability. And number three, for gosh sakes it doesn’t matter.”

A soft-spoken father of two, Hindman, 43, traces his problems back to his appointment with a psychotherapist in December 1990.  He was feeling a little down and tired. She suggested Prozac.

The cloud over his moods quickly lifted. He was more upbeat, more aggressive on the job.   But strange new impulses tugged at him, he says.

Hindman started slipping into empty offices at work and pilfering purses. The take was usually $20 or $30, he said, but one time he got $775. Employees reported a dozen or more thefts, a GTE attorney said.   “Once I started, it was uncontrollable,” he said.

On July 27 — the day after the ADA’s employment rules became law — his supervisor summoned him. GTE took his ID, and he was booked for two robberies. Later, GTE fired him for violating rules against firearms in the office.

Copyright (c) 1994, 2004 Ocala Star-Banner
Record Number:  65770