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Former veterans official awarded $1.8 million in discrimination case

Former veterans official awarded $1.8 million in discrimination case

  • Updated

A jury has awarded $1.8 million to a former Wisconsin veterans affairs administrator, agreeing that his boss reassigned him to a job 110 miles from home to punish him for backing a former colleague's claims that he was fired because of his race, age and sex.

Gary Wistrom, who was an assistant administrator at the state Department of Veterans Affairs veterans home in Union Grove, was awarded the compensatory and punitive damages Wednesday after a two-day trial in federal court in Madison.

Peter Fox, an attorney for the 30-year U.S. Air Force veteran, issued a statement saying he was pleased with the verdict.

"I am proud to be his lawyer," Fox said of Wistrom. "(He) received the due process that this country provides and that he dedicated his life to protect."

Wistrom filed the lawsuit against former DVA Secretary Ken Black last summer. The lawsuit centers on remarks that Black made at a March 2010 meeting about purging old, white men from the agency. Black is African-American.

Three months later, Black fired Randall Nitschke, the white commandant at the Union Grove home. Nitschke filed a complaint with the state Equal Rights Division alleging Black discriminated against him based on his race and sex. Wistrom signed an affidavit supporting Nitschke, saying he attended the meeting where Black made his remarks about old white men.

Wistrom was reassigned from Union Grove to the agency's Madison headquarters days later with no explanation, according to court documents. Faced with a 216-mile round-trip commute, Wistrom, who was 60 and suffered from disabilities that made the drive painful, decided to retire. He alleged Black facilitated the transfer in retaliation for the affidavit and as a way to get rid of an older, white, disabled employee.

The state Justice Department defended Black in the case. Justice spokeswoman Dana Brueck said agency attorneys were disappointed with the verdict. Black resigned as DVA secretary in April 2011 but has denied race or age played any role in his personnel decisions.

Wistrom, Nitschke and Tim Donovan, a former Wisconsin National Guard spokesman who alleges Black passed him over for a DVA communications job because he's a white man, all have filed discrimination complaints with the state's Equal Rights Division. Nitschke and Donovan have filed federal discrimination lawsuits against Black as well.

Fox, who is also representing Nitschke, said he reached a settlement with the state in August that will resolve both Nitschke's federal and state cases. He declined to discuss the terms. Justice's Brueck said the state has agreed to pay Nitschke $180,000.

"Based on the facts of the case, settlement at this amount was in the best interest of the state," Brueck said in an email.

Donovan's attorney, Peter Fox's cousin Mike Fox, said he settled both of Donovan's cases on Thursday for $282,500. Brueck confirmed the deal.

"This truly was not a suit brought for money," Mike Fox said. "It was brought because the law had been violated."

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