Debra Katz and Lynne Bernabei are the attorneys for a Falls Church man who is asking a federal judge in Alexandria to rule that AIDS is a handicap and that his dismissal from his job last summer violated Virginia laws protecting those with physical disabilities. An article in the Metro section yesterday may have given the impression that another attorney is representing the man. (Published 1/31/88)
Charles Crowley said that when he told his employer he had an AIDS-related disease, he expected some understanding.
He said he had brought in four new accounts and $2 million in revenue for the telemarketing firm. And when his boss asked him to accept lower commissions because of cash flow problems, Crowley said he readily agreed.
"I figured that since I helped them out when they needed it, they would help me out," said the Falls Church resident.
Instead, he said, he was fired.
Crowley filed suit against his employer in federal court in Alexandria yesterday, asking a federal judge to rule that AIDS is a handicap and that his firing last July violated Virginia laws protecting those with physical disabilities.
Crowley, 52, also wants declared void and "unconscionable" an employment contract he said he was pressured to sign that bars his estate or heirs from receiving his annual commission if he dies before May 5 this year.
Some legal observers say this is the first case brought in Virginia in which an employer has allegedly discriminated against an employee with AIDS, though there have been numerous cases in other states.
"That employer reacted to the news not only by firing him, but by using it as a lever to change" Crowley's employment contract in their favor, said Alexandria lawyer Kenneth Labowitz. "An employer can't use AIDS as a lever against an employee."
Steve Idelman, chairman of the Omaha-based Idelman Telemarketing Inc., which employed Crowley as the firm's marketing director, declined to comment about the case, as did his attorney.
In a petition filed in federal court in Omaha Jan. 19, the firm asked that Crowley's contract be declared valid and asserted that Crowley resigned after notifying the company "of his physical incapacity and inability to continue his employment."
According to Crowley's suit, in which he is asking for $430,000 in back pay, $150,000 in damages and reinstatement, he told ITI April 22 that he had lymphoma and that it was fatal. Five days later, Crowley said he received a contract dated to cover his employment with ITI from May 1987 to May 1988.
Crowley, who estimates his accrued commission to be $144,000, said he was emotionally distraught, physically sick and "in no condition to read legalistic language."
ITI President Dale Broekemeier telephoned Crowley "on a number of occasions" asking if he had signed the contract, according to the lawsuit. Fearful he would lose his job and his health insurance coverage, Crowley said he signed the document May 4.
No one at ITI informed him that that provision had been inserted into the contract, according to the suit. Crowley said he discovered it by accident three months later.
"It's my money. I earned it and I have the right to determine what's going to happen to that money after I die, not my company," Crowley said yesterday in an interview.
"Thank God I'm not married with three kids in college . . . . It's like playing Russian roulette with a person's life," he said.
In July, he said he was again seriously ill and decided to tell ITI he had AIDS-related complex. He told the firm he was "not able to put in a full day's work, but that he wanted to continue to work and would do the best that he could," according to the suit. "I felt a moral obligation to tell them I was unable to give them a full day's work and that . . . when the time comes I can't do anything, obviously they'll have to replace me." A week later later, he was fired.
"I think that if an element of compassion had entered into this, this would not have happened," said Crowley.
Federal judges in several other cases around the country have found AIDS to be a handicap under the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibiting discrimination against otherwise qualified disabled persons. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court found that an individual with tuberculosis, a contagious disease, was handicapped under the act.