Disabled Veteran Wins Landmark Discrimination Suit Against FBI
Many veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have found re-entering the workforce tough. It's well known that discrimination is rampant, especially against wounded warriors. Still, the latest employer to have lost a lawsuit filed by a disabled soldier may come as a surprise: the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
After two tours of duty in Iran and one in Afghanistan, Army Ranger Justin Slaby lost his left hand when a stun grenade prematurely exploded in a training exercise in 2004, according to court papers. He had always dreamed of being an FBI agent. It was one of Slaby's doctors who suggested that he apply to the FBI, according to NPR, which also reported that Slaby passed a fitness-for-duty exam in 2010, including proving how he could shoot while wearing either of his two state-of-the-art prosthetics.
Slaby's suit claimed that "the FBI instructors at the academy in Quantico responded to his presence with incredible hostility and abject disrespect." As NPR reported:
Six weeks into a 21-week course, the native of Oak Creek, Wis., says that he was told that he couldn't cut it and was out. Slaby sued and on Aug. 7 won a landmark discrimination lawsuit against the FBI. Not only will the 30-year-old get his job back, but a jury awarded him $75,000 in damages. He will be the first FBI agent with a prosthetic limb. And an FBI official who allegedly tried to pressure a witness involved in the case is under investigation and has been reassigned.
According to the lawsuit, Slaby's classmates overheard their trainers snickering in the hallway: "What are they going to send us next? Guys in wheelchairs?" They'd never had a guy like Slaby try to be an agent, and they seemed determined to prove he couldn't cut it.
Slaby's lawyers John Griffin and Kathy Butler had successfully pursued another FBI discrimination case on behalf of a man with diabetes whom the FBI had refused to hire, according to Diabetes Forecast.
Working in Slaby's favor was testimony from FBI personnel, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. An FBI firearms instructor at Quantico, Nathan Williams, had to admit that he was a "top-tier student," even if the instructors decided that his gun handling would not have reached required levels of safety.
However, Griffin and Butler showed that the documentation about these concerns started the day Slaby arrived, before anyone would have had a chance to see his performance. And another trainer said that agents weren't generally asked to demonstrate gun handling abilities with their non-dominant hand the way Slaby was.
For example, Williams said Slaby could not properly pick up a gun from the ground or transfer it from his dominant right hand to his prosthetic left hand even after Slaby had the device modified and improved later in 2011. Williams called it "an unteachable safety concern."
"We had concerns about his ability to perform," Williams said.
But perhaps more devastating to the agency's case was that Teresa Carlson, head of the Milwaukee FBI office, reportedly got in trouble and was transferred over allegations that she tried to persuade an FBI agent to change his testimony in the case and "come down on the side of the government in this matter," according to the Journal Sentinel.
Some see the case as a big win for wounded veterans. Jeffrey Hynes, president of the Wisconsin Employment Lawyers Association, told the Milwaukee newspaper:
Because of the unique circumstances and scrutiny this case attracted, it is likely to become the catalyst and rallying cry for other veterans who are facing similar barriers to employment upon their return from military service.
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Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman