Sick and Fired

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

Karl in fact applied for those benefits, but the City denied them because Karl had made his application on December 27, 1998, more than 30 days after the July 1 termination date of which he was never informed, and a mere 25 days after Mayor Brown's letter informed him that his case was open and under investigation.

Karl applied for a disability pension on September 17, 1998, and was denied for the same reason.

Earlier this year I accompanied Karl on a scheduled visit to the zoo to retrieve some of his personal belongings. We were met at the entrance and subsequently escorted through the premises by a uniformed Houston police officer.

Now, Karl says he is denied entrance to the zoo grounds, and he claims he's still got personal possessions in his former office that he has not been allowed to retrieve. He had a friend shoot a videotape of Karl's attempt to enter the zoo as a paying customer. Karl appears perfectly calm during the interchange with several successive members of the zoo staff. He was not allowed entrance.

Finally, on April 13 of this year, Karl was granted a modicum of relief. A Texas Workforce Commission Appeal Tribunal decided that the City was wrong, that Karl was indeed qualified to receive his unemployment benefits. Based on new information that came out in the appeal, including Red Bayer's admission that Karl's starting work hours had long been established as anywhere from 9 a.m. to noon before the arbitrary 8 a.m. clampdown, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has reopened its investigation of Karl's ADA discrimination complaint. The denied pension, without a clear course of appeal, remains in limbo, and Karl -- after two years of concurrently fighting his medical condition and the City -- is nearly indigent.

His independent herpetology work has fallen off as his time has been consumed with gathering documents and making notes and filing appeals. At this point, he knows his well at the Houston Zoo is poisoned, and he has no wish to return to work there. Besides, even though a new medication regimen seems to be working well, he's increasingly uncertain if his depression will allow him to work. That, he says, is what the disability pension he wants is there for.

Zoo administration, of course, cites a zipped-lip policy on speaking about former employees and declines to comment on Karl's case, and that, Karl says, may be the unkindest cut of all. All he really wants now, aside from the pension he thinks he has coming, is some answers. Why, instead of using a medical separation policy seemingly intended for cases such as this, did the City place him on indefinite leave? Why, if they were so concerned about the state of his mental health, did they respond to the crisis with punitive measures instead of accommodations? Why, if they knew he was sick, did they deny unemployment benefits and his pension? Why, if they thought him to be teetering on some mental brink, did they harass him into deeper depression? Why did they respond to him with fear instead of taking his medical condition seriously and employing reasonable and already established measures to deal with it?

Karl's not likely to get his answers. Recent court cases have established that the best way for an employer to be sued is to make qualitative comments about a former employee. But there's another legal edict, from April 1997, that's equally relevant. The EEOC, in order to carry out the ADA of 1990, addressed for the first time the ADA's coverage of persons with mental disabilities. The ADA defines disability as "a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities, specifically including major depression." Relief under the ADA, according to the guidelines, should include the altering of work schedules, assignment to a different job or altering the method of supervision. All of which Karl requested. All of which were denied. The EEOC says the new guidelines were intended to address the "myths, fears and stereotypes" associated with mental illness. Like the ones Karl was met with when he first walked into the Press office a year ago complaining of mistreatment. The same ones that hounded him out of the only job he ever loved.

E-mail Brad Tyer at brad_tyer@houstonpress.com.

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