FORT SMITH, Ark. — The U.S. Department of Agriculture has until Aug. 5 to respond to a court filing by a former employee the department’s own administration says was wrongly terminated.
In August 2011, Jason Nelson of Waldron worked as a food inspector at a poultry processing plant in Noel, Mo. He filed a complaint with the USDA Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, alleging the department discriminated against him based on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury suffered during his military service in Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the department: refused to transfer him to a duty station closer to his home in Waldron as a reasonable accommodation for his disability, placed him on administrative leave because of his disability and ultimately forced him to resign because of his disability.
On Sept. 27, 2012, Joe Leonard, USDA assistant secretary for Civil Rights, issued an opinion rejecting the first two claims but sustaining Nelson’s claim his termination resulted from discrimination based on a disability.
Nelson’s supervisors allowed him to resign instead of being fired in July 2011, based on the department’s determination Nelson posed a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation,” according to Leonard’s report.
Nelson’s supervisors based the determination on three statements made during an April 2011 mediation regarding his transfer request, when Nelson commented that “I was a soldier and I killed people (in Iraq),” he has suicidal and homicidal thoughts when depressed and his family knew not to touch him before addressing him because his combat experience left him jittery and he “sometimes struck them.”
Nelson argued the first two statements were taken out of context, noting the comment about killing people in Iraq came when he and a supervisor discussed how their respective disabilities cause depression, and Nelson was trying to illustrate the difficulty of the circumstances he faced in Iraq. With regard to the homicidal and suicidal thoughts, Nelson said he was referring to how he felt when he returned from Iraq in 2005, according to the report.
Leonard’s report acknowledged Nelson’s statements about the “bleak aspect” of his service in Iraq raises concerns, but instead of seeking an assessment and opinion from a qualified psychiatric medical professional on whether Nelson posed an imminent threat to himself or co-workers, a supervisor who was aware of Nelson’s PTSD instead began to ostracize him in an effort to force his resignation.
The report also noted that the most recent assessment of Nelson’s condition before his forced resignation, stated “he is considered employable and his prognosis with continued treatment is very good.”
Leonard directed the department to compensate Nelson for past pecuniary loss, future pecuniary loss and non-pecuniary loss. Pecuniary loss is loss that can be quantified in monetary terms, while non-pecuniary — for example pain and suffering — cannot be quantified.
Nelson submitted a claim for $19,562 in past loss wages, $211,976 in future lost earnings and $2.5 million for pain and suffering caused by his unlawful discharge.
However, according to Nelson’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Fort Smith by Greenwood attorney Michael Harry, the USDA failed to respond to the claim and subsequently ceased any and all contact with him and his client.
Nelson is asking the court to require the USDA reimburse him for the full amount of his claim and attorney fees.
U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III set an Aug. 5 deadline for the USDA to respond to the complaint.
The USDA did not respond to calls for comment.