Two doctors fired from the Veterans Affairs hospital in Fargo, N.D., should be reinstated with back pay, says a judge who ruled the firings were in retaliation for their advocacy on behalf of foreign doctors working under special visas.
Harjinder Virdee, M.D., and Rudranath Talukdar, M.D., were told in 2002 that their contracts would not be renewed because of budget pressures.
Both were classified as temporary employees, although Virdee had worked at the VA hospital for five years and both were active in a local union representing physicians at the hospital.
Alice Craft, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor, concluded the budget crunch was not the real reason for their dismissals.
"Both the underlying reason of budget matters, and the particular explanations for selecting Drs. Talukdar and Virdee for termination, lack credibility," the judge said.
Virdee, a psychiatrist who now practices independently in Fargo, called the decision a victory for veterans. She said the VA center relies on foreign doctors, many of whom leave.
"The doctors there look for a way out once they're there," she ssaid. "They cannot have any rights because they're hired temporarily."
As a result of the high turnover, the care of veterans suffers, Virdee said.
Douglas Kenyon, director of the VA center, declined to talk in detail Monday about the decision.
"Our attorney's going to review it. We're disappointed in the decision and will probably appeal it," he said.
He testified earlier that the center faced a budget deficit of "several million" dollars.
"Usually it's very difficult to just terminate employees," Kenyon testified. "But temporary employees don't have the same amounts of protections and are subject to termination."
Craft said the Fargo VA medical center advertised openings for seven doctor positions during the same fiscal year that Virdee and Talukdar were fired.
Also, Kenyon acknowledged in a hearing that no staff doctors at the center had been dismissed for budgetary reasons in the preceding 10 years, despite chronic budget shortfalls.
Virdee and Talukdar were dismissed after they spoke on behalf of 10 minority doctors, all from other countries working under special visas.
Two years ago, federal labor officials ordered the Fargo VA hospital to pay $203,798 in back wages to the 10 doctors. The Labor Department said they were being paid less than their non-minority physician peers.
"They're afraid to speak because there is no protection of their rights of any kind," Virdee said.
Virdee and Talukdar routinely received outstanding performance evaluations, but their relations with their supervisors became strained when they began advocating openly for the foreign doctors working under visas.
Virdee's relationship with one of her supervisors, Dr. Ada Kirkman, became so tense that Kirkman shoved Virdee to keep her out of a meeting, witnesses at a hearing in the case testified.
Talukdar, an internal medicine doctor, resigned as a team leader after he was denied a two-step pay increase, and later moved to Houston. He was awarded relocation expenses along with back pay.