Sick and Fired

Former curator Karl Peterson has been shut out of the zoo, and he wants to know why

Did Karl's co-workers, including Neitman, share that fear?
"I don't think so. My personal opinion on it and talking to other people ... on the one hand nobody can be sure what somebody's going to do. On the other hand, everybody, as I remember it, and myself included, figured that if something happened to Karl because of his medical problems, he would probably be more inclined to cause harm to himself rather than ever hurt anybody else," Neitman says. "He could be loud and intimidating at times, but I can also say I've personally never seen him lift a finger against anybody. Sometimes it was just his looks rather than anything else."

Karl ended up returning to work with a simple doctor's note stating his readiness. And the way Karl sees it, the screws continued to tighten.

The way zoo officials saw it, Karl began abandoning his job.
Historically, Karl claims -- and a Texas Workforce Commission Appeal Tribunal later found -- he had been allowed to report to work between 9 a.m. and noon, a sort of tacit accommodation of his struggles with insomnia. But when Karl came back to work after the September 1997 hospitalization, Head Curator Red Bayer told him he would henceforth have to arrive at work at 8 a.m. Karl protested, citing his insomnia, and provided a medical questionnaire from Dr. LaGrone outlining his medical condition.

Karl couldn't hack getting to work at 8 a.m. and began to accrue tardies and absences that he now blames on the added stress of what he calls his "harassment" by his supervisors. In January 1998 Karl was subject to "attendance counseling" and was told that the present pattern was unacceptable. In March the City suspended Karl for a week for excessive absenteeism. He had racked up 671 hours of sick time and 404 hours of emergency vacation.

From March 30 through May 26, 1998, Karl was absent or tardy a total of 218 hours, according to City figures, though Karl contests many of the log's details. Clearly, whatever the exact totals, Karl was having problems.

Dr. LaGrone released Karl back to work on April 15, 1998, again with a note explaining that he would need a modification of his work hours due to his insomnia. Instead of offering any accommodation, on June 22, 1998, the City again suspended Karl without pay, this time indefinitely. The paperwork referenced no reason for the suspension aside from absenteeism.

Karl sees his absence problems as being the result of his depressive disorder. He asked for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law that allows for up to three months' leave for serious health conditions. The leave was denied. He asked for an accommodation of work hours under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which specifies such accommodation as a possible solution for persons with disabilities, including major depression. Bayer instructed Neitman to begin keeping a phone log of when Karl called in, detailing where he was and what he said.

Karl offered, much like Olson had once done, to take a demotion to a position of less responsibility. This, too, was denied.

Neitman, like Karl, thinks that by this point Don Olson -- for all his concern about Karl's mental health -- was just looking for a way to get him out of the organization.

"At that particular point, yeah. I think he was already assessed as a loose cannon, and there towards the end I don't think there's a whole lot he could have changed," Neitman says.

By that time, EAP's supposed confidentiality aside, the rumors were flying at the zoo. Brian Moore, at the time a keeper under Karl's charge, resigned in early May 1998 to move his family to New Jersey and felt compelled to address a letter to the City of Houston explaining that "in no way was Karl Peterson a factor in my decision to leave." Asked later to explain the necessity of writing such a letter, Moore says, "I just wanted to make sure that nobody used me and my departure from the zoo as a pawn against Karl, saying that I was leaving because of him." Clearly, even the keepers knew that administration was gunning for Karl.

Karl, of course, was eventually fired, though Karl says to this day he has never been officially notified of his termination. The date the City now provides as Karl's termination is July 1, 1998, although interestingly this date is within the ten-day window that his indefinite suspension letter of June 22 allows for in an appeal of the suspension. Even a December 2, 1998, letter signed by Mayor Lee Brown, over five months after the suspension, thanks Karl for "taking the time to appear before City Council regarding your indefinite suspension," with no mention of termination. The letter goes on to inform Karl that his cases are still active with the City's Office of the Inspector General and promises a response from that office, which Karl has yet to receive. As late as January 25, 1999, the Texas Workforce Commission was holding telephone hearings to determine whether Karl was fired or had voluntarily quit, which latter possibility is an issue Karl says the City falsely raised in an attempt to deny him unemployment benefits. The commission found that Karl had been fired.

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