By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
Behind all the vague numbers are people like Erin Brown. There's no way to tell if her story is typical, but she, Sonya Wimberly, and Lisette Cox tell tales that, while differing in detail, form a pattern in their essentials.
"I'm living with pain for the rest of my life, and 'the BSO family' just doesn't care," says Brown, punctuating her words with sighs and sniffles. "I don't understand why any deputy who works there now, even on the road, would respond to a major incident, knowing what they do to their staff. 'Cause I'm not the only one."
Sitting in the comfortable living room of her parents' home in Coral Springs, Brown begins her story calmly enough, leafing through the big stack of paperwork beside her on the couch for specific dates and incidents. But it's no more than a few minutes before emotion overwhelms the 36-year-old mother of two, and she drops the papers to wipe away tears with her hands. She was always told that BSO was one big happy family, she says, and she believed it. That family promised to take care of her, no matter what. Her voice rises as she describes the humiliation of being accused before her friends of faking injury. Her father joins in, enraged at the frustration she's suffered. Finally, Brown must pause and leave the room to compose herself before finishing her description of the year-long runaround that ended with her unceremonious firing from the job she loved by people she once trusted.
"I just can't believe it, the way they've treated me," Brown says. "So much for all their talk of being a family."
Those people include Dr. Donald McCarthy, her first doctor under the HMO that treats Workman's Comp cases for BSO; and Janet O'Brien, benefits manager at BSO's Human Resources Bureau. But most of Brown's anger is directed toward Veranda Daniel, director of BSO's Equal Employment Opportunity Division (whose job it is to find a place for injured employees), and Patrick Lambert, another BSO deputy and president of the Fraternal Order of Public Employees (FOPE), the union to which Brown belonged.
When Brown first saw McCarthy on August 12, 1998, immediately after her fall, he suggested physical therapy and sent her back to work. But two days later, Brown was in terrible pain and couldn't move her right arm. McCarthy told her, "I think you can't move your arm because you don't want to move your arm," Brown says. It took her two more days to get an MRI from Dr. Ignacio Magana. When he saw the results, Magana grabbed the phone and scheduled her for immediate surgery. He removed three ruptured disks from her spine and later wrote to Broward County Risk Management that Brown was permanently 10 percent disabled and would not be able to return to her previous job.
Janet O'Brien urged Brown to apply for ADA accommodation, Brown says -- and then, she adds, her application was used as a pretext to investigate her. She says investigators conspicuously tailed her to the bus stop when she dropped off her two children, scaring her kids. They also secretly videotaped her at family functions and while shopping. Some videos showed Brown in obvious pain. But one tape showed her lifting a child's stroller from a car, twice lifting a toddler, and once tossing a ball. The video was sent to Magana, who lifted many of Brown's restrictions.
Yet the most damning portions of the video -- in which the woman on tape was lifting objects overhead -- showed not Erin Brown but her sister, as investigators acknowledged much later. And Brown tossed the ball underhanded with her uninjured left arm.
Brown remained out on Workman's Comp until September 1999, when Risk Management told her to start working the jail's control-room desk. She alleges that she was told not to worry about getting an official return-to-work form. But the supervisor on duty had no idea she was supposed to be there. When Brown called Human Resources, O'Brien professed no knowledge of any physical restrictions on Brown and asked for a copy of them (despite having earlier urged her to apply for ADA accommodation), Brown said in a letter to BSO. O'Brien also told her to go home until the problem was straightened out.
Brown returned to the control room the next day. In O'Brien's interview with BSO's Office of Professional Compliance, she explicitly states that Brown met the standard for ADA accommodation and that Veranda Daniel approved that decision. Daniel acknowledges that by March 2000, she had accepted that Brown was permanently partially disabled.
But even as Brown worked, the investigations went on. In July 2000, BSO's ADA committee asked the BSO Office of Professional Compliance to examine whether Brown had defrauded Workman's Comp after her initial injury. The investigator found no evidence that Brown was malingering. When interviewed during this process, O'Brien acknowledged that Brown had willingly done whatever she was told to do.
During this period, Brown was on "light duty," awaiting an improvement or final settlement of her medical condition. Under the union contract, light-duty assignments are for only 60 days, says Patrick Lambert, FOPE president. That time is not usually extended except in very unusual circumstances, Lambert says. He couldn't explain why, if extensions are so rare, Brown's light duty was extended eight times.