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.
"If they have the guts to tell their employer, despite the social stigma attached, they will be protected," he adds. "Let's face it, this is a gay issue. A gay man who has no family, whose own family may or may not have anything to do with him when the truth comes out, is [more dependent] on his job, the self-esteem that a job brings, than a heterosexual [person] with a family they can fall back on."
Ecker also learned something else from his ordeal, a lesson about power and money that grew out of his unsuccessful search for a local lawyer who would help him tilt against one of the most powerful institutions in the city. One after another, a string of big-name plaintiff's attorneys, including Joe Jamail, turned down his case, until the stressed-out Ecker exploded in a "manic outburst" of frustration during a conference with litigator John O'Quinn. "At the point I met with John I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown," says Ecker, who now professes acute embarrassment over the episode. "I was under an enormous amount of stress and just cracked. I remember picking up a big vase of flowers and smashing it. I remember the secretaries screaming. I remember pushing the bronze [a Frederic Remington] off its base. I remember being escorted by guards from the building."
Ecker believes Houston attorneys shied away from his case because of the $300,000 cap on damages stemming from the Americans with Disabilities Act. He eventually retained a Chicago-based firm -- Bollinger, Ruberry, and Garvey -- largely because a former bank client, Claire Wittig, was the wife of one of the attorneys in the firm. Ecker confided in her since "she was one of the few people I loved and trusted enough to tell almost immediately when I was laid off from the bank why I was laid off."
Wittig flew to Houston to meet with Ecker, and soon he was in Chicago talking to firm associates. "They were very committed to the social case," he remembers. "They believed in the principles, and they also thought it was cutting edge, one of the first cases in the country, because there were very few ADA cases at that time."
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EEOC director Ehrlich says that's changing rapidly. Twenty-five AIDS-related complaints have been filed in the Houston EEOC office, resulting in eight pending lawsuits. "That's just the tip of the iceberg," says Ehrlich, who is making AIDS-related cases a priority. "For the first time, people are coming in to us in life-threatening situations. We've never had charging parties before who are dying."
Ecker also hopes his experience makes it easier for HIV-positive friends at TCB. His attorneys, he says, have prepared a form that he's giving to friends across the country. "This is the document you take to your employer officially notifying them of your disability and your intention to utilize your rights and the accommodations that you are allowed," he says. "I can't imagine a company would dare fire, lay off or 'reorganize' an individual, once having been officially notified."
As for his other former co-workers, Ecker says some told the truth at risk to their own standing, "but other people who I loved, trusted and admired didn't tell the truth, felt that their job situation was better served by concealing things and telling half-truths than by telling the whole truth, good and bad."
A TCB spokeswoman fielded a request from the Press to talk to a bank official about the Ecker case, but as of press time no response was forthcoming. Ecker, meanwhile, hopes the bank, as well as corporate America in general, gets a simple message: "Personnel people could get out of their ivory towers and make themselves available, create a climate where an employee could come to you and say, 'I have a disability. I think it's beginning to affect my work.' Create that environment, because there are probably very few companies in America where it exists now.