A March 7 article about the settlement of a court case involving a D.C. Health Department worker incorrectly stated the title of James A. Buford. He is the director of the D.C. Health Department. (Published 3/8/03)
A city Health Department worker who was dismissed after complaining about rotten and moldy food being served to District schoolchildren has won back her job.
Madeleine Fletcher, an epidemiologist who sued the District government in August 2001 -- a year to the month after she was ousted -- said her return to work next month will send a message that "you cannot just shoot the messenger bearing unwelcome news."
A self-described whistle-blower, Fletcher filed suit in D.C. Superior Court alleging that she lost her job after testifying at a D.C. Council hearing about conditions at the school system's central warehouse. She said she found at least 20 packets of grape jelly that had mold, as well as eight-year-old packages of macaroni, dried pinto beans, oats, rice and grits that were infested with weevils.
The school system had stockpiled nearly 200 tons of old and decaying food at the Northeast Washington warehouse, some of which was destined for food banks and some that was to be served to District children in the school lunch program, Fletcher said.
In a settlement reached Wednesday, Fletcher won one year's salary worth $52,298, $18,000 in damages and $50,000 to cover legal fees. She also will be reinstated to a 13-month term of work beginning April 21, she said. Fletcher, 48, previously worked for six years at the D.C. Department of Health as a term employee, with her job being renewed every 13 months.
"I never expected to be in this position just because I was doing my job," Fletcher said yesterday. "But I learned there is enormous pressure in government agencies to look the other way."
A Health Department spokesman said that the acting director, James A. Buford, could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for the city's law office declined to comment.
Despite outstanding job evaluations and being one of only two epidemiologists that the District had investigating outbreaks of communicable diseases, Fletcher was let go at the end of a term, four months after she testified, she said.
The lawsuit alleged that Ivan C.A. Walks, then head of the Health Department, retaliated against Fletcher for "disclosing the department's gross mismanagement." At the time, Walks said that Fletcher was terminated because of department restructuring.
"Of course they wouldn't admit to having fired me for my whistle-blower activities because that would be breaking the law," Fletcher said yesterday, adding that "there was no logical reason" to dismiss her.
Fletcher, a Yale- and Purdue-educated scientist with three advanced degrees, originally sought more than $1 million in the lawsuit on claims that included defamation by Walks, emotional distress and civil rights violations.
Her attorneys predicted that she will have a far easier time at work now that the department has significantly changed management.
"After reviewing her record, the new director is eager to bring her back," said Joanne Royce, a trial attorney at the Government Accountability Project, a Washington-based public-interest law firm that represented Fletcher.