VA must pay $1.5 million after Denver military veterans win EEOC complaint

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DENVER (KDVR) – Two military veteran nursing professionals, who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after a patient sexually harassed and assaulted them, will each receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensatory damages.

“The Agency could have taken additional actions to stop the sexual harassment … but failed to do so,” wrote Lucila G. Rosas, an administrative judge for the EEOC. “Clearly there were many other actions the Agency could have taken to end the sexual harassment … Yet, the overwhelming evidence on the record establishes that the Agency failed to take effective corrective action to end the sexual harassment,” she wrote in her December decision and order before the case was finalized last month.

With the help of the Maryland-based law firm, Gilbert Employment Law, P.C., Kathy Bennett and Josephine Zahn filed a complaint in 2015. The women, who worked in the psych unit of the Denver VA Medical Center in 2014, said they were repeatedly subjected to abusive, vulgar and aggressive sexual behavior while they were caring for a particular patient.

“He would grab our breasts (and) grab our bottoms,” said Zahn. “He would say disgusting things like, ‘Suck my d—. Let me suck your t——,’” said Zahn.

Bennett said the patient sexually violated her.

“I was digitally penetrated by this man,” she said. “Even after that happened, I had no rights to get away from him,” she said. 

The patient, an amputee who required assistance with changing his undergarments, was also accused of masturbating in front of them and calling them names like “bitch” and “whore.”

The women said they felt invisible and that management told them that the behavior they were forced to endure was just part of the job.

According to the decision and order signed by Rosas, management “blamed the nurses for Patient LL’s sexual behavior toward them. The nurses were told that they should expect to be treated this way because of where they work. Some nurses were told that if they were not prepared to deal with patients like LL, they did not ‘have any business working in psychiatry,’ and they could leave.”

“There should have been policies in place to protect us, and there were none,” said Bennett.

“I felt violated, not just being sexually assaulted on a daily basis, but I felt violated and betrayed by a system put in place,” said Zahn.

The administrative judged ordered the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to pay $1,516,971.36 in compensatory fees, attorneys’ fees and costs. The agency was also ordered to establish and implement sexual harassment training and policies to inform staff of their rights if a patient harasses them.

The agency must also post a notice informing staff that the United States Department of Veterans Affairs Eastern Colorado Health Care System had violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against female employees.

“It was a really long fight,” said Shannon Leary, a partner at Gilbert Employment Law, P.C. “When we see clients get justice, it really feels great.”

Leary said the lengthy case will have an impact on many other people because the VA is required to implement a policy that will apply to the rest of its medical staff.

“I hope that decisions like this will help people feel empowered to know that there are people who will  listen to them even if it takes a long time, as this process does. There are people who will listen to them, and there are people who will stand behind them as to help them – give more strength to their voice – as they try to maneuver through the system.”

“I felt like justice has finally been delivered,” said Zahn.

Zahn, who worked as a licensed practical nurse, and Bennett, who was a certified nursing assistant, are both retired now and still working through the trauma.

“It gave me a little bit of peace of mind that… these two women can actually create change,” said Zahn. “It was never about the money.”

“Or the patients,” added Bennett. “He was a very sick man. This has to do with policies put into place that do not protect the caregivers.”

The VA released the following statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes and is working tirelessly to proactively respond to the issue of harassment in VA facilities. Every Veteran and employee should feel safe and respected at all VA facilities.

Throughout the years, VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System has implemented policies that support safe working environments. We require managers and staff to complete various levels of Preventive and Management of Disruptive Behavior training, which supports employee safety and builds skills on de-escalation around any type of unwanted behavior. We continuously participate in the stand-up to harassment campaign and each employee is required to complete annual mandatory training. In addition, we have hired a Workplace Violence Prevention Coordinator, further promoting a culture of safety.

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