Former Marine Jonathan Brown was discharged from the military about two years ago after injuries to his eyes left him unable to serve. And it's that disability, Brown is claiming in a recently filed lawsuit, that prompted his employer to fire him from the gym that he was managing last summer.
Brown had been employed by New Life Fitness World in Lexington, S.C., for nearly two years when he was called into the office of the newly hired regional manager and was told on July 30 that his employment "wouldn't work out." Brown had just returned from a regular doctor's appointment at a nearby Veterans Affairs hospital, when his boss, Jonathan Moreno, said he had to let Brown go.
"It was kind of a surprise," Brown told WIS-TV in Columbia, S.C. (via WBTV.com). As much of a surprise was the reason noted on his dismissal paperwork (pictured below), which showed Brown was terminated by New Life Fitness World on July 31 for being a "disabled veteran," according to county court filings obtained by the TV station.
Brown said he offered to work nights and weekends to make up for the time taken for doctors' appointments -- something that he'd done with his previous manager -- but Moreno wasn't willing to reconsider his decision. "His mind was made up by the time he was even walking in the building," Brown said.
Brown served in the Marine Corps for six years and was deployed in Iraq, where he operated a 25 mm cannon before being discharged for his eye condition. Its symptoms include blurred vision and shaking in both eyes. Brown said that he wasn't sure whether operating the gun caused his eye condition.
"The VA is just like the military," Brown told WIS. "If you miss an appointment, you might not get another one to actually let them help you with your problem."
Brown's attorney, James Smith, said his client's case is black and white. "[It] is so clear a violation of the [Americans With Disabilities Act], and obviously they need an education," said Smith, also an Iraqi war veteran.
Employers with 15 or more employees are required to make "reasonable accommodations" for employees with disabilities, Smith said. Brown's willingness to make up lost time was fair to both sides, he added. "Those are reasonable accommodations, which must be made by an employer and they just need to understand that," Smith said.
About 25 percent of recent veterans report having a service connected disability, as compared to about 13 percent of all veterans, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Veterans of the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan also have higher rates of unemployment than veterans as whole -- 19.9 percent, compared to 6.7 among all veterans, according to data for September by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When confronted with the allegation that he fired Brown because of his disability, Moreno, who has since left New Life Fitness World, called the charge, "horse***t." Moreno told WIS that the reason he fired Brown was because of customer service complaints, and for failing to keep the gym clean and meet his sales goals.
But Jody Parks, Brown's previous manager, said Brown was "a great guy [and a] good employee." Brown's final paycheck shows the gym paid him $150 in bonuses for meeting production, sales and membership goals.
Parks confirmed that he and Brown had worked out an arrangement that allowed the veteran to make up the time that he spent in doctors appointments. "He was able to basically come back in and make up the time that he had missed. It was fair on that level," Parks said.
An attorney for the gym, Tobias Ward, told WIS that the reason for Brown's termination "is hotly contested,' adding that "management vigorously disputes the reason for termination given by Jonathan Brown in his lawsuit."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story quoted Ciye Malcuit, who both Moreno and Brown identified as the owner of New Life Fitness World, according to WIS. Malcuit says he isn't the owner of the business. Rather, he is the general manager of the fitness chain's gym in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
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