Stricken With Cancer, and Then Terminated

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Katie Tremul stood before Manassas City Council members recently and said she wanted to tell them a story: "a story of honor, dedication, loyalty, as well as fear, pain and abandonment."

It was her story, a cautionary tale, she said, one that illustrates the intricate web of employment law and how government employees in Fairfax County might find themselves with different rights than those in Loudoun County.

Tremul, 50, learned that lesson while working for the City of Manassas in May 2006, when a doctor told her she had breast cancer. She had worked as an emergency communications specialist, directing calls for the fire and police departments for 12 years. But July 26 this year, after going on long-term disability while she underwent seven surgeries and chemotherapy, Tremul received a letter in the mail terminating her employment. With her job went her health and life insurance benefits, she said.

"You don't cut someone off at the knees when they're sick. And that's what they did," Tremul said. "I was fired for having cancer."

When Tremul stood before the council late last month, she did it without a lawsuit hanging overhead. She said that she knows the city had the legal authority to fire her, and a firefighter in a similar situation, but that it didn't mean officials were fair or right in doing so. She said she hopes that by hearing her story, officials will not only end the practice of firing long-term employees who contract life-threatening illnesses but also cease doing it through the mail without warning.

"Bottom line: We have been terminated because we are sick," Tremul told the council. "It just seems wrong, doesn't it?"

Manassas Mayor Douglas S. Waldron and City Manager Lawrence D. Hughes did not return calls seeking comment.

Manassas Police Chief John J. Skinner, whose office oversees Tremul and Carl Persing, a longtime Manassas firefighter, said both employees are missed.

"Both were very dedicated, highly trained, long-term, highly valued employees and highly regarded," Skinner said.

Lawyers who specialize in employment law said that although public servants tend to have more rights than those in the private sector, the degree of their rights depends on the municipality. Virginia law lays out a basic template for personnel policies, and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act offers umbrella protections, but a degree of discretion is left to each jurisdiction, they said.

"The thing with employment law is it's very fact-specific. You can't say one situation applies to another," said Camilla C. McKinney, a Fairfax-based lawyer who handles employment law throughout the region. "There's a difference between something that seems unfair and unjust and whether it's a legal cause of action."

Lawyer John C. Cook in Fairfax heard Tremul's case when she called him this summer. He could not speak about the specifics of their conversation but said her case falls into a complex legal area where federal, state and local laws often meet.

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