Discrimination lawsuit against VVMC continues | VailDaily.com

Discrimination lawsuit against VVMC continues

Veronica Whitney

Montes and 10 other former housekeeping and kitchen employees at the hospital are suing the hospital for discrimination. The former employees, Hondurans, Mexicans and one African American woman, claim they were discriminated against by supervisors who told racist jokes and dumped unusually heavy workloads on them.

More than three years after the alleged incidents, Montes and her former colleagues recently declined an offer to settle the case. One of the initial 13 employees who filed the lawsuit accepted the settlement, while another withdrew his complaint, says Don Salem, chief legal officer with the Vail Valley Medical Center.

In a Nov. 25 settlement conference at Federal Court in Denver, attorneys for the hospital proposed to pay each employee participating in the complaint $7,500 to settle the lawsuit.

“We won’t accept it because we want to go to trial,” says Montes, who worked at the hospital for eight years. “There was a huge discrimination there.”

The judge recommended they accept the settlement, Salem says. Both sides are now preparing for trial. No trial date has been set.

“There’s no foundation to the lawsuit whatsover,” Salem says. “We offered the settlement solely for nuisance; it will cost the hospital money to defend itself.” So far, the cost of the defense has been paid by the hospital’s insurance company, Salem says.

The former VVMC workers initially filed a 53-page complaint with claims that the Vail Valley Medical Center violated its anti-discrimination policies, and that repeated acts of discrimination created a hostile work environment.

The lawsuit claims that supervisors made repeated derogatory comments, calling them “dirty,” “witches from Honduras,” “dumb” and “lazy.” The employees also claim they were given such heavy workloads that they didn’t have time to take lunch or other breaks. The employees say the were forced by supervisors to do extra work, in an effort to save money for the hospital. Workers further claim in the suit that supervisors either ignored or refused to investigate discrimination complaints, and treated employees worse after they did complain about discrimination.

The employees also say supervisors would segregate them by forbidding their family members visit them at the hospital or eat with them in the cafeteria, and that they were subjected to English-only policies in some areas of the hospital.

“We have not found a shred of evidence to support the claims,” Salem says. “We conducted an investigation. We treat all these claims seriously. We’ve confirmed that it is all untrue.”

David Sandoval, the attorney for the plaintiffs, didn’t return calls for this story.

Salem says what started as a class-action lawsuit with 168 claims by 14 people, is now down to 66 claims by 11 people.

“The judge has dismissed well over half the claims already and we’re confident he will dismiss the rest of them during the pre-trial discovery,” Salem said.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin;

Jim Ryan, spokesman with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington, says the commission can’t comment on a case unless it has filed a lawsuit.

The Denver district office of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigated the case and closed its file in 2001 after it couldn’t reach a settlement with the hospital. The commission also decided not to bring suit against the hospital and ServiceMaster.

However, in letters to the plaintiffs noticing of their right to sue, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it “has found reasonable cause to believe that violations of the statute occurred with respect to some or all the matters alleged.”

The commission’s decision of not filing suit, however, doesn’t mean that it certifies that the defendants are in compliance with the law, the letters say, or that it will not sue them later or intervene later in the lawsuit.

“First they offered us $2,500,” Montes says, “now, $7,500. Once we pay the attorney, we’ll only have $3,900 left.”

In discrimination cases, Ryan said, there aren’t any set amounts for awards.

“It depends on how much damage the plaintiff feels he suffers,” he says.

Margarita Erazo, one of the plaintiffs, says she put up with the alleged mistreatment for many years because she is a single mother and she needed her job.

“If they can’t pay with jail the humiliation we endured,” says Erazo, 47, of Avon, “they can pay with money.”

After she was fired in 1999, Erazo said, her supervisors at the hospital told her not to come back.

Salem insisted there’s no facts supporting these statements.

Veronica Whitney can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 454, or at vwhitney@vaildaily.com.

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