Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Ex-worker files complaint against VA center


Marea Murray
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A lesbian who worked for the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center is claiming through an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint that she faced discrimination while working there.

Marea Murray, 56, of Oakland, a licensed clinical social worker, joined the medical center in December 2012 on a temporary appointment, which was terminated in August 2015.

According to Shaun May, a spokesman for the law firm representing Murray, she "was passed over for permanent positions" in favor of people with less experience and who were straight. In her complaint filed in December 2015, Murray claims she was terminated as part of a "hostile work environment" based on her sex and as reprisal for her pointing to problems she was having. (Federal law doesn't specifically prohibit people from being fired because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, but the government's ban on people being fired because of their sex may be used instead.)

In an interview, Murray said that in September 2013 she was supposed to be "the next person in line" for a permanent position, but it went to someone who'd come to the agency after her, and who wasn't even interviewed for the new job.

"I found that suspicious," she said. "It felt very unfair."

Then, Murray said, she and a supervisor who had "significantly less experience than I did" started having a conflict over "a very complicated case" involving a veteran who was living with AIDS.

Murray, who said, "I've done AIDS work for 30 years," said the supervisor "started harassing me. He wanted me to do something that I didn't think was appropriate for this veteran. ... I thought it could do him harm."

She declined to share details of the situation, citing the vet's privacy, but she said the supervisor was Dennis Moore.

After Moore's supervisor, Michael Jake Martin, approached her about the case, she said, Moore "accused me of going over his head to his boss, which I didn't do."

She said Moore told her the conflict would affect her performance evaluations. In copies of evaluations she provided to the Bay Area Reporter, Moore rated several areas of her work as "exceptional."

Murray told Martin about what had happened but "he didn't do anything," and "the harassment continued for months," she said. "All he wanted to talk about was this case, and I had 30 to 35 other cases."

Moore declined to comment for this story, referring questions to medical center spokeswoman Judi Cheary, who said she didn't know about the case and couldn't comment on "ongoing litigation." Martin didn't respond to an interview request.

In September 2014, Murray said, supervisor Kathryn Sherrill was "aggressive" toward her and told Murray that she'd been doing some "fact finding" on her.

"We know you're a seasoned social worker, but you're intense," Murray said Sherrill told her.

"If you're a woman and you're called 'intense,' that means you're angry, or crazy, or both," Murray said while recalling the incident.

"Months later," she said, she saw an affidavit from Martin in which he "engaged in the most despicable, insidious kind of lesbian stereotyping" in an attempt "to cover his ass."

Murray said that in Martin's account, he'd "twisted" the words she'd used to describe Moore "trying to dominate me." She declined to share a copy of the affidavit.

Sherrill said she'd been instructed to refer questions to VA attorney Vanessa Lichtenberger, who didn't respond to an interview request.

This isn't the first time that Murray has complained an employer let her go because of her sexual orientation. San Francisco Superior Court records show that in 2006, she filed a complaint against the Henry Ohlhoff House drug and alcohol treatment center, which does business as Ohlhoff Recovery Programs. Among other things, she claimed she'd been wrongfully terminated in retaliation for her raising concerns that she was being harassed because of her sexual orientation. The case was settled in 2007.

Murray, who said, "I won that case," said she'd been "harassed by a straight male psychiatrist" at Ohlhoff.

"I'm not somebody who likes to sue," Murray said. "These were situations where they did nothing to protect me, and that is part of the job of supervisors, to protect people from harassment."

Murray said she's about to start a new job.

A February 2016 letter from the VA's Office of Resolution Management in Los Angeles to Heather White, Murray's attorney, says it had determined Murray's "claim of harassment" related to the 2015 complaint "passes the severe or pervasive requirement for further processing. While a single isolated event typically is not sufficiently pervasive to state a claim of harassment, it is noted that your client has a prior [Equal Employment Opportunity] case of harassment" that's "currently pending hearing" at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

An EEOC spokeswoman declined to comment.

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