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With whatever time he's got left, Mike Ecker is living both the traditional American dream and the modern American nightmare. Flush with a big settlement from a job-discrimination lawsuit that has bought him a brand-new $40,000 leather-upholstered Mercedes C Class 280 sedan, the former Texas Commerce Bank vice president also has a full-blown case of AIDS and the self-professed desire to make his remaining years, or months, something more than a spending spree.
"I know a lot of people are going to say, 'Mike got his money, and now he's back to being the good ol' self-centered spendaholic that he was,"' says Ecker, a tall, soft-spoken Annapolis grad and Navy vet. "But I'll never go back to the same indifference to other people's situations that I used to have. When you experience prejudice and discrimination, it automatically gives you some understanding of the discrimination other people endure."
His court settlement with Texas Commerce is sealed, but Ecker says it's more than adequate to cover his needs. "I had a dream of buying a big mansion here and turning it into a hospice at one point, when there might have been multimillions ... but that kind of money was not in the cards," he says. "Now I have plenty of money to live on, more than plenty for a single person. But what's the best purpose to put that to? That's where I am right now."
As he mixes instant cappuccino in his kitchen for a guest, Ecker notes he can no longer read a newspaper without his glasses. It's not the kind of middle-age slippage that can be corrected by a visit to the optometrist. For the 44-year-old Ecker, a gay man who's watched AIDS-stricken friends go blind in the past months, even minor physical ailments now come with a death rattle. Most people have time to burn and not enough money. Ecker's predicament is precisely the reverse.
He's made a large cash contribution to the AIDS Foundation out of his TCB settlement and talks of driving indigent patients to the hospital in his luxury car. He's also mulling a project to write a book advising HIV-positive workers of their legal rights.
AIDS Foundation executive director Sara Selber says Ecker "made a wonderful donation when we really needed a cash flow" and that he also volunteers a considerable amount of time, including working at the Stone Soup food pantry and tracking down and reclaiming previous volunteers. As for his purchase of the Mercedes, Selber says, "If I were him I might have done the same thing. People don't realize the emotional, mental, physical stress of going up against something like Texas Commerce Bank."
Sitting in his small apartment on Kipling that's jammed with the antiques, collectibles and personal mementos that once filled a large Montrose townhouse he sold during the legal dispute, Ecker laughs and admits it's hard to leave the material lifestyle of a bank executive behind. "I don't get up in the morning and take a shower and put on a Ralph Lauren suit anymore," he says. "It's a little frightening sometimes. I think I'm on vacation, and when am I going to go back? I'll never have an office again. Never have a secretary ... but on the other hand, I have enough time and money and enough health that I can do something different."
Ecker sued TCB after being terminated two years ago in what the bank claimed was an office reorganization. Lawyers at the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission initially refused to back him, but in an unprecedented turnaround, the agency eventually weighed in on Ecker's side, although not until he had hired private counsel. "New facts came to our attention," explains the EEOC's district director, Harriet Ehrlich.
Media attention, including inquiries from the New York Times, may have also influenced the bank to settle out of court. Because Ecker was sick so long before his condition became general knowledge at the bank, some former co-workers believed he was just a poor worker with a high absentee rate. Shingles and a nearly fatal case of meningitis, red flags for immune-system problems, made his last year of work difficult and may have helped create that impression, even though his bank job ratings were consistently satisfactory.
"Even the last year or two at Texas Commerce, my health and the requirements associated with my health had started to interfere with my job performance," Ecker recalls. "What I should have done was go right to personnel with an official notification that I was operating under a disability and that I was requesting certain accommodations, shorter work hours, a half week, whatever."
Ecker says at the time he knew little about the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act, and didn't know how to protect what he later discovered was an irreplaceable job and insurance benefits. He hopes others can learn from his experience.
"If you are HIV-positive and you allow yourself to lose your job, you're not going to get another one, not if you're honest and level with your [prospective] employer," he says. "That makes it doubly important to keep your existing position. People have got to use the legal protections to keep their jobs.