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Ex-employee sues Whitman-Walker

Alleges discrimination, hazardous workplace

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Metro TeenAIDS, gay news, Washington Blade
Federally Qualified Health Center, Whitman-Walker Health, gay news, Washington Blade

Omar Mendez Rivas had been working at the organization’s Elizabeth Taylor Building at 14th and R Streets, N.W. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A former employee has accused Whitman-Walker Health in a lawsuit filed on Jan. 15 of illegally firing him in retaliation for his complaint that he was subjected to a hazardous workplace “contaminated with paint fumes and other toxic materials.”

Omar Mendez Rivas, who was hired by Whitman-Walker in April 2015 as a staff accountant/grant biller, charges in his lawsuit that the organization terminated his employment on the same day he informed supervisors he had filed a complaint against Whitman-Walker with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The lawsuit, which seeks $200,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, also charges Whitman-Walker with violating the D.C. Human Rights Act by discriminating against him in the firing based on his race, national origin and gender.

“One week prior to termination, Plaintiff filed a complaint with OSHA in regards to building violations and uses of toxic paint in a confined space during working hours, without warning or without protection against harmful fumes and materials used – this resulted in Plaintiff getting severely ill with headaches, dizziness, nausea and respiratory difficulties,” the lawsuit charges.

In a Jan. 22 motion calling for the U.S. District Court for D.C. to dismiss the case, Whitman-Walker argues that each of Rivas’s allegations “fail as a matter of law” because they fail to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

The motion also says that Rivas was “terminated at the conclusion of his three-month introductory period,” and under D.C. rules related to employment “an at-will employee may be discharged at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.”

Whitman-Walker spokesperson Shawn Jain told the Blade Rivas had been working at the organization’s Elizabeth Taylor Building at 14th and R Streets, N.W. He said Whitman-Walker has a policy of not commenting on the reason why employees leave the organization.

“We continue to dispute the claims made by Omar Mendez-Rivas,” said Jain, who added that OSHA conducted its own investigation and has not issued any safety violations based on Rivas’s claims regarding paint fumes.

A page on the OSHA website for a case listed as “Whitman-Walker Elizabeth Taylor Medical Center – Inspection Information” says the case was opened on July 31, 2015 and closed on Sept. 10, 2015. No findings of a violation in OSHA regulations are listed on the page.

OSHA spokesperson Leni Fortson said the fact that no violations are listed indicates none were found by OSHA inspectors who visited the building in response to the complaint.

Jonathan Dailey, the attorney representing Rivas, said he was told by OSHA while preparing the lawsuit that the case was ongoing. But he said he won’t dispute what OSHA is now saying and will correct the lawsuit’s assertion that the probe was continuing.

He said the lawsuit was never dependent on an OSHA finding of a violation. “This is a wrongful termination case,” he said. “This is based on common law a wrongful discharge public policy exception, which is recognized under D.C. law as a cause of action.”

The lawsuit says Whitman-Walker has responded by saying the termination was not due to Rivas’s OSHA complaint but it has refused to give a reason for the termination.

“At no point after his hire and prior to his termination did defendant complain about his work performance, other than praise,” the lawsuit says.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Reggie B. Walton.

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Virginia

NoVA Prism Center becomes hub for local LGBTQ community

Leon van der Goetz founded organization in 2022

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(Photo courtesy of Leon van der Goetz)

The NoVA Prism Center in Oakton has emerged as a hub for LGBTQ community engagement in Northern Virginia.

Leon van der Goetz, a transgender man, founded NoVA Prism Center in 2022 after he returned to the U.S. from Japan where he had been an English teacher. The organization has steadily grown since.

NoVA Prism Center this year had five Pride events, including one at the end of May.

Fairfax County helped NoVA Prism Center organize some smaller events. NoVA Prism Center has also put on workshops, hosted monthly club meetings and other events.

NoVA Prism Center has worked with around 20,000 people even though it only has an annual budget of $12,000 that comes through online and in-person donations.

“To the best of my knowledge and research, NoVA Prism Center is the only physical space in the D.C. suburbs (i.e., outside of D.C. city limits), particularly in Northern Virginia, that is by and for the LGBTQ community, open year-round, and does not involve being around alcohol or needing to spend money,” van der Goetz told the Washington Blade in an email. “There are plenty of bars, restaurants, support groups, and meetup groups that gather in other public community spaces, but we’re the only physical LGBT+ center within an approximately 90-minute drive.”

“Before I was about to move back (from Japan), I heard that Fairfax and Loudoun Counties were having protests at the school board meetings, regarding books about people like me,” he said, discussing how the idea behind NoVA Prism Center came about.

A Loudoun County School Board committee in January 2022 voted to uphold then-Supt. Scott A. Ziegler’s decision to remove two LGBTQ-themed books — “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” — from school libraries amid parent protests. The school board later that year fired Zeigler amid criticism over his handling of student sexual assaults.

“And I decided at that moment, rather than go the route of being a public school teacher and potentially be a first-year teacher, early in transition, I decided to specifically start protecting these books, creating NoVA Prism Center as a library and community center around providing access to information about queer lives, stories, and history,” said van der Goetz.

More than a third of the community’s center’s library are LGBTQ-themed books that have been challenged or banned in schools. NOVA Prism Center also has a closet that allows community members who may not feel comfortable shopping at thrift or retail stores for clothes that correspond with their gender identity or expression.

“It started with our binder exchange program, where we started collecting chest binders for the trans masculine community,” said van der Goetz. “When I was early in my transition, I found that I needed more masculine clothing. And I had a whole bunch of feminine clothing to get rid of.”

NoVA Prism Center founder Leon van der Goetz (Photo courtesy of Leon van der Goetz)

NoVA Prism Center also publishes “The Lantern,” an online magazine. It includes art, poems and short stories from community members. “The Lantern”’s first issue is on NoVA Prism Center’s website, while its second is available for purchase. The e-zine’s third issue is currently in the works.

NOVA Prism Center is looking for a more permanent location, but the office building in which it is currently located remains a safe space for anyone who participates in their events. 

The organization hopes to raise money for a new space at their annual fundraising event in October, Coming Out Gay-la, an 18+ LGBTQ prom. Funds will support NOVA Prism Center itself, community programs and expansion of their events. 

NoVA Prism Center next month will begin to promote the prom on its social media pages. https://www.instagram.com/novaprismcenter/ or https://www.facebook.com/NoVAPrismCenter/

Van der Goetz described NoVA Prism Center as an “oasis in the storm” for LGBTQ people who continue to face harassment and efforts to curtail their rights. 

“I see people making connections, building friendships and support structures,” he said. “By being together and protecting each other I think that we’re going to be able to make it through.”

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District of Columbia

New complaint form to help D.C. LGBTQ seniors facing discrimination

Office of Human Rights steps up protections for those in long-term care

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OHR’s Care for Seniors program supports LGBTQ seniors and seniors living with HIV facing discrimination.

The D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) announced on July 22 that it is launching new “user-friendly” intake forms designed to facilitate and simplify the filing of discrimination complaints by seniors, including LGBTQ seniors, who encounter discrimination in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes.

“The forms simplify the complaint filing process, making it easier for residents to better access support and understand their rights” at long term care facilities, according to a statement released by OHR. The statement provides a link to access the new intake forms online.

“This initiative is part of OHR’s Care for Seniors program, which supports LGBTQ seniors and seniors living with HIV facing discrimination in such facilities,” the statement continues. “The form addresses concerns related to sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, HIV status, and other prohibited bases of discrimination, streamlining the reporting process and enabling seniors to file claims directly through OHR’s website,” it states.

In addition to the improved intake form for seniors filing discrimination complaints, the OHR announcement says it is also releasing new forms for filing complaints under the D.C. Universal Paid Family Leave Amendment Act, which requires employers in the city to provide 12 weeks of paid leave benefits for parental, family, or medical reasons to eligible employees.

“The form allows individuals to file complaints if they believe their employer has interfered with their right to these benefits or retaliated against them for requesting, applying for, or using paid leave” in violation of the law in question, according to the statement.  

OHR officials have pointed out that D.C. stepped up its protections for LGBTQ seniors through the passage by the D.C. Council of the Care for LGBTQ Seniors and Seniors with HIV Amendment Act of 2020. Among other things, the law calls for OHR certified trainers to “provide specialized information for staff in long-term care facilities, specifically tailored to meet the unique needs of LGBTQ+ seniors and seniors with HIV in long-term care facilities,” OHR states in its website.

“We prioritize safeguarding the new rights and legal protections outlined in the Act, which includes a posted notice of ‘Non-Discrimination’ aiming to ensure that participating facilities actively contribute to creating secure and inclusive environments for all residents,” the OHR website statement concludes.

The questionnaire and complaint form for LGBTQ seniors facing discrimination in long-term care facilities can be accessed at ohr.dc.gov.

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District of Columbia

Nonprofit D.C. groups invited to apply for anti-LGBTQ violence grants

$700,000 available for FY 2025 ‘VPART’ program

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LGBTQ Affairs Office Director Japer Bowles. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of LGBTQ Affairs held a conference on July 18 to inform interested officials with local nonprofit community-based organizations that provide services to the LGBTQ community how best to apply for city grants of between $5,000 and $50,000 as part of the city’s Violence Prevention and Response Team program, known as VPART.

Information released by the program states that its mission is to “address, reduce, and prevent crime within and against the LGBT community” by “creating a strong partnership between the community and the government which enables us to focus on coordinating a community response to violence.” 

Addressing hate-bias crimes targeting the LGBTQ community are among the program’s high priority objectives, information released by the program says.

Presentations on how best to apply for the VPART grants and what the requirements are for obtaining them were given by LGBTQ Affairs Office Director Japer Bowles and the office’s grants administrator, George Garcia. The two said the deadline for submitting grant applications for the program is Aug. 5. Organizations whose applications are approved will receive the grant funds they are approved for on Oct. 30, which is the start of fiscal year 2025.

Garcia said a total of $700,000 has been allocated to fund the VPART grants, the number of which will depend on how many applications are received.  

Garcia said that among the key components of the VPART program are Victim Response Services, Case Management, Legal Services, Trauma Informed Mental Health Services, and Cultural Humility Training that he said are aimed, among other things,  to support LGBTQ victims of violent crime.

One of the organizations that has received VPART grants in past years, and that is expected to apply again this year is the D.C. LGBTQ Community Center.

 “Along with offering trauma-informed therapy and casework, the DC LGBTQ+ Community Center directly supports LGBTQ+ survivors with our mental health services, shelter assistance, and other resources victims of violence may need,” the LGBTQ Center says in a statement. “If you are LGBTQ+ and are a victim of violence, or know someone who is, you can refer them to the DC LGBTQ+ Community Center and we will make sure they are supported and connected to the resources they need,” the statement says.

The conference was held at the Reeves Center municipal building where the LGBTQ Affairs office and other city agencies as well as the LGBTQ Community Center are located at 2000 14th St., N.W. About a dozen people attended the conference in person and another 14 attended virtually through Zoom, according to Bowles.

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