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School district accused of bias in trial

A former employee with a degenerative disease testifies that his ailment led to his firing.

By GRAHAM BRINK

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


A former employee with a degenerative disease testifies that his ailment led to his firing.

TAMPA -- Frank Vasquez says he loved working for the Hillsborough School Board as a maintenance man, building fences, lining fields and getting dirty.

When he lost the job in 1999, he thought the reason was simple: He had told his bosses that doctors recently diagnosed him with a degenerative disease that affected his motor skills, including the way he walked and talked.

Vasquez filed a discrimination lawsuit. Testimony in his federal civil trial began Tuesday.

"That was my life. That was my career," Vasquez said, choking back tears. "It was taken away from me."

The School Board painted a different picture, arguing that Vasquez's condition did not qualify for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act and that he was fired because he failed to undergo the required testing, according to court documents.

"There is no evidence demonstrating that the School Board terminated Vasquez because it regarded him as disabled," attorney Thomas Gonzalez wrote in a pretrial motion.

Vasquez, 40, went to work for the School Board in 1997. He had spent almost 13 years in the Army before his discharge in 1992 and worked a series of jobs in the mid 1990s. With the School Board, he was promoted several times and received good evaluations.

In July 1999, Vasquez felt fatigued and had trouble keeping his balance. He went to a specialist who diagnosed spino-cerebellum degeneration, a progressive disease that can eventually leave afflicted people with little or no ability to walk, move their limbs or feed themselves.

Vasquez still looks strong and fit, but he leans to the right when he walks. Some people mistake him for being drunk because he slurs his words and sometimes stumbles, he said. There is little treatment, and Vasquez said he will likely only get worse.

Vasquez wrote a letter to his specialist saying that his ability to do his job was affected by the disease. He had trouble painting straight lines on the playing fields and the walking wore him out, he wrote. Vasquez's specialist wrote a letter to his supervisors saying that, given the problems with his coordination, he would have a lot of difficulty getting in and out of heavy machinery and climbing ladders.

With only minor accommodations like a five-minute break every hour instead of a longer break every two hours, Vasquez testified, he could have performed many of the other jobs such as digging holes and painting.

On Nov. 9, 1999, School Board officials told Vasquez he would need to get a functional capabilities exam. According to the suit, Vasquez tried but discovered the exam was not covered by his School Board insurance policy. A month later, he was fired.

"People just think of me as some loser who is disabled," said Vasquez, who won the Army Commendation Medal for distinguished and meritorious service. "If I only had the chance, I could have shown that I could have done (the job)."

Gonzalez argued that the School Board was willing to accommodate Vasquez. By failing to get the exam, Vasquez forced them to let him go, he argued.

Vasquez wants the jury to award him compensation for past and future financial losses, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience and mental anguish.

Vasquez will continue testifying today.

-- Contact Graham Brink at 226-3365 or brink@sptimes.com.

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