Thomas Brooks says in retrospect that he should have seen the trouble developing back in 2001.
As chief technician in the histopathology lab at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, he had told the lab manager about continuing problems with an employee hired the previous February. She'd been described as volatile and hostile at times, but his main concern was that the work of the lab, analyzing human samples and diseases, could be compromised for patients of the University of Texas facility.
He said one omen came when he and other workers were chatting and the employee, Maria Grimberg, suddenly began talking about how her supervisor at a past medical job in Miami had been sued for sexual harassment. "It just came out of the blue," he recalls, "like a veiled threat."
Another indication of approaching problems appeared when Grimberg would leave his office, he says. She had a habit of making herself look disheveled. He tells of seeing her pulling her blouse until it was barely tucked into her pants, and shaking her head to tousle her hair.
"I asked her one day what that was all about," he says. "She just told me, 'Oh, no reason.' "
That all came into focus when he heard of her claims to others about a long-running affair between the two, even to the point -- as one worker put it -- of Grimberg describing his "long penis" and their escapades and his advances. And another employee said Grimberg remarked that "she had the power to bring Brooks down if she needed to."
That was enough to prompt Brooks to expand his complaints about her, but administrators at M.D. Anderson put off his requests for a meeting. Meanwhile, Grimberg, who had been made aware that this supervising lab tech was trying to raise his concerns about her to executives, got her session.
In the end, the hospital did act on the sex harassment claims -- Grimberg's allegations, not his. After a quick investigation and heavy reliance on her accusations, Thomas Brooks was summarily fired. After almost 25 years of service at M.D. Anderson, he was banished from the premises and had his belongings shipped home to him in a box.
"They got Maria's version of the story and that was it," says Brooks's attorney, Ellen Sprovach. "Nobody ever saw Thomas do or say anything inappropriate in the 25 years he worked there. And nobody saw or heard anything inappropriate in this situation. But that didn't matter to them. Their minds were already made up."
Brooks says he was stunned by the accusations. "It is hard to describe it, even two years later, because it was almost dreamlike. They didn't even give me a chance, even during the investigation or interrogation, or whatever you want to call it."
Brooks has become the latest example in the evolving legal field of reverse discrimination. In earlier decades, women had complained that the male-dominated workplace was ignoring blatant discrimination, sexual and otherwise. Attitudes are generally considered to have improved with more enlightened personnel policies and zero-tolerance edicts of employers. Now more complaints are being fielded that personnel actions and decisions are discriminating against male workers.
In February, Sprovach gained a $545,000 verdict on behalf of a fired natural gas trader who accused a subsidiary of Duke Energy of wrongly firing him because of a sex harassment complaint. Vicente Garcia had been terminated in 2000, only weeks before he was due to receive $450,000 in stock options.
His ouster came after a secretary alleged that the trader had stalked her. Garcia had filed his own complaint of sex harassment earlier, but the company, Detmi Management, had not conducted an investigation.
Sprovach says that had the company been diligent about acting on Garcia's complaint, it would have discovered the proof that the secretary's claim was bogus. Traders, as a standard part of their work, have office calls taped. One of those recorded conversations was of him and the secretary laughing and kidding about her supposed accusation that he stalked her.
Sprovach notes that the four executives involved in determining Brooks's fate were all females. She acknowledges that sexual harassment complaints can put employers in a "no-win situation" but says they must remember that equal rights mean just that -- men deserve the same protections as women.
The Brooks case hardly had the smoking-gun evidence of tape recordings -- some of it, in fact, could be called icing on the cake. For his birthday in June 2001, the woman who would later claim harassment against him brought Brooks a "sexual fantasy" cake from Three Brothers Bakery -- complete with an image of two large bare "breasts" and nipples, as well as exotic net panties.
Brooks, a soft-spoken air force veteran, was trained in lab work in his hometown of Waco before he took the job at M.D. Anderson. A divorcé, he has been living with another hospital lab worker since 1997.
Grimberg, a U.S. citizen of Chilean descent, divorced shortly after taking the lab job in February 2001. When she made her first complaint about being unfairly criticized for her work, she did not tell her interviewer about sexual harassment claims. Gradually, her story unfolded that Brooks had made suggestive remarks and advances, leading up to a torrid affair that spanned a few months and included intercourse and oral sex at the office, in motels and at her home.
When she finally broke off the relationship, she was subjected to intense scorn from Brooks as well as some other co-workers, Grimberg told investigators.
As lurid as the account was, there didn't appear to be much to back it up. Sprovach says the accuser was very vague about the hotels where the sex supposedly occurred, and -- despite the supposed near-daily trysts -- there were no witnesses.
As for the sex at work, his secretary sits almost against the outer wall of his office and heard nothing that remotely indicated any passionate action inside.
Sprovach argues that the fantasy cake was more authentic than the supposed sex. She says Grimberg knew her job could be in trouble because of her performance problems, and countered by concocting the claims against her supervisor. Had the investigators looked at the notes made by Brooks's boss -- or even talked to her -- they would have realized the complaint was in retaliation against him for her poor work reviews, Sprovach says.
M.D. Anderson officials defend their actions and the quality of the investigation, saying it reflects the hospital's commitment to providing a workplace that is free of discrimination and harassment.
They say the review turned up more-than-adequate information to support the firing. They found that Brooks had been living with a co-worker for years -- he says supervisors already knew that and approved the arrangement years ago. In the investigation, he did initially deny the cohabitation. And the review determined that he had consensual sex with another employee.
"We believe that there were substantial, corroborated, serious violations that were supported by the evidence," says Dan Fontaine, a senior vice president and chief legal officer for M.D. Anderson. "We had to make a tough choice. We made it. We'll stand by it."
However, another choice, this one recently made by a state district court jury, seemed much easier.
In the trial of Brooks's suit for retaliation and wrongful firing, Sprovach says, jurors found the credibility of his chief accuser suspect, especially when the attorney asked her if Brooks was still sexually harassing her at the time she offered up the sexually explicit birthday cake to him.
"Absolutely," the woman replied.
Sprovach began her case by alluding to the film Fatal Attraction, saying that in this situation, a woman had destroyed a man's career rather than his family. In stinging final arguments, state Assistant Attorney General Richard Naylor referred to the plaintiff as a "sexual predator" who'd been preying on the women of M.D. Anderson.
The jury of six men and six women took less than two hours to rule in favor of Brooks. Members concluded that age and race (Brooks is African-American) were not motivating factors in his firing -- but gender was. And that the firing was in retaliation for Brooks's accusation of discrimination. The verdict was that the hospital should pay about $900,000 in compensation for his lost wages, retirement and attorney fees.
The defense is already challenging the verdict, saying it is unsupported by the evidence. Fontaine says it is only appropriate that the case be reviewed by the judge and even appellate courts if necessary.
As for Brooks, he's now working as a low-level lab tech for another hospital. His salary is about $20,000 less than the $57,000 he made yearly at Anderson.
Worse yet, he says the ordeal has made him skittish about even the most basic interaction with women and co-workers. He recalls his fear of what might result from the slightest contact, even a female employee accidentally brushing past him.
"I have to watch the way I talk to the ladies, watch the way I even joke, and avoid physical contact at all costs," he says. "I'm even paranoid about shaking someone's hand anymore. I never dreamed this could happen. It is very difficult to live with."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.