THE VET OFFENSIVE
At first glance, Lionel Dela Rosa's lawsuit against Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems seems like just another ho-hum discrimination case filed by a grumpy former employee.
But it isn't. It is really about whether a Vietnam veteran's sometimes disturbing behavior justifies workplace harassment by co-workers.
Dela Rosa, a 60-year-old Hispanic Vietnam veteran who was once featured in Soldier of Fortune magazine, claims in his 1994 federal lawsuit that his co-workers at the medical equipment repair shop at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North harassed him because of his age and race.
Dela Rosa lists in court documents a number of humiliating office pranks that were played on him during the four years he worked for Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems. Among other things, he says he was seriously burned when a colleague purposely sprayed him with a canister that contained Freon. He says another employee told him a racist joke about shooting Mexicans.
When he complained to his superiors, he says, he was retaliated against with further workplace pranks. Finally, he quit his job. And now he wants the hospital to pay him at least $4 million in damages.
This is not the first time Dela Rosa has fought an employer. He says he filed a 1985 discrimination claim against Samaritan Health Services with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That case was settled on the condition that Dela Rosa not speak about the claim, he says. The commission says such records are not public. Samaritan Health Services' attorney, Blair Benjamin, acknowledges Dela Rosa and Samaritan settled the claim on the condition that neither party talk about the case.
Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems, which operates both Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North and Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-Osborn, declined to comment through its lawyer, Robert Deeny.
Deeny also refused to confirm the authenticity of documents filed in court by the hospital and released to New Times by Dela Rosa's attorney, Heath Dooley. The court file has been temporarily sealed by U.S. District Judge Roger Strand.
But the documents released by Dooley indicate that Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems has admitted that most of the incidents Dela Rosa complains of did occur--including the canister spraying and the telling of a joke that "involved a Hispanic."
The hospital, however, denies that any harassment or discrimination occurred.
Instead, the hospital says Dela Rosa caused workplace hostility with his "bizarre behavior." And, according to the documents released by Dooley, the hospital is focusing on Dela Rosa's Vietnam war experience as a factor in his behavior. The documents ask that Dela Rosa produce a manuscript of a magazine article he once wrote about Vietnam. The manuscript was never published.
The hospital claims Dela Rosa showed fellow employees his manuscript, and talked about his days as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam. One employee, Dianne Barraza-Mooney, claims the manuscript describes "killing animals and civilians." In court papers, Barraza-Mooney says, "After I read most of the draft, Lionel asked me what I thought of it and I told him I thought it was sad. Later, when Lionel started staring at me and other co-workers for long periods of time without saying anything, I was concerned that he might be emotionally unstable."
Barraza-Mooney did not return telephone calls.
Dela Rosa has a different story to tell. He claims he never discussed his war experiences in detail with his co-workers and did not show the manuscript to Barraza-Mooney. During an interview, he repeatedly insists it was his age and race that caused his workplace problems. Not Vietnam. He can't even talk about Vietnam, he says.
In court papers, Dooley says the hospital's delving into Dela Rosa's war experience is designed to embarrass him. "The unwarranted intrusion into a veteran's painful war experiences is designed to strip Mr. Dela Rosa's dignity since no other reasonable purpose appears. The review of family and personal papers is an improper invasion of privacy . . ." Dooley wrote.
Dela Rosa sees the hospital's legal maneuvers as "Vietnam-vet bashing."
Dela Rosa suspects he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his Vietnam experience, but claims he's never been diagnosed because he's never sought treatment.
Lawyers from the Veterans Administration and the Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy group for Vietnam vets, would not comment on the case because they had not seen the lawsuit.
However disturbing Dela Rosa's war experiences might be, he has shared these memories, at least once, with someone else. He told part of his story to Phoenix writer Nancy Poole, who sold the piece to Soldier of Fortune magazine. Poole is Dela Rosa's ex-wife.
The 1990 article centers on an ambush near the Cambodian border in which many Americans died. In the article, Dela Rosa describes the hatred he and all the survivors felt toward the "gooks" who'd ambushed them. Dela Rosa goes on to tell Poole he shot a Viet Cong prisoner of war. It was an unconscious reaction, he says, to another soldier who had asked, "Do you want to shoot a gook?"
Dela Rosa, who claims to have been decorated many times during his 22-year Army career, says he was proud to be featured in the article. That's why he once showed the piece to two co-workers at Scottsdale Memorial Hospital-North. But that was the extent of his in-depth sharing on Vietnam, he says.
And that does not justify workplace harassment, he says.
While Scottsdale Memorial Health Systems does not admit in court papers to workplace harassment, it does concede that several troubling incidents occurred.
In 1992, for instance, a co-worker sprayed Dela Rosa with what he says was Freon, causing a burn that required medical attention. The hospital, while refusing to admit that Dela Rosa was burned, acknowledges that the employee sprayed Dela Rosa; that employee was "verbally counseled."
A short while later, Dela Rosa claims, someone glued "bottles and other items" to the shelf above his workbench; one bottle broke when he took it from the shelf and the contents spilled. The hospital denies this, but allows that Dela Rosa complained about the incident to management, which did not take action because no culprit could be found.
Dela Rosa claims he was the subject of numerous other humiliating workplace incidents, including the joke about shooting Mexicans, the removal of a bolt from his workbench and derisive comments from co-workers regarding his work performance.
The hospital admits the joke about Hispanics was told, but says it was not disparaging. It admits the bolt on the workbench was "loosened," but denies that humiliating comments were made. The hospital also denies Dela Rosa's contention that his tires were punctured and that someone had put something foul in his coffee.
Dela Rosa believes the hospital is raising his war experience as a diversionary tactic, and he worried about what could happen if the hospital is successful in making it an issue.
"This case could set a precedent," he says. "If they win, no one will hire a vet for the simple reason that they can call him a psycho just because he fought in a war.