Pitt employee sues University for alleged disability discrimination


TPN File Photo

Daniel Hinkson, the program director of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health in the Department of Infectious Diseases, filed a civil complaint against the University for allegedly discriminating against him on the basis of disability.

By Benjamin Nigrosh, Assistant News Editor

An employee of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health filed a civil complaint against the University for allegedly discriminating against him on the basis of disability.

Daniel Hinkson, a GSPH employee since 1999, filed the complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on June 7, 2019, and the lawsuit was filed on Dec. 9, 2019, in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Hinkson alleged that the University’s actions violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. He asked the court to award him back and front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages and legal fees.

Pitt spokesperson David Seldin said the University believes the case is “without merit.”

Hinkson has Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication. He was initially diagnosed with autism in approximately 1973 or 1974, according to the complaint, and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2018.

According to the complaint, beginning in August 2017 and the following months, Hinkson spoke with his supervisor, David Givens, to complain about the strong chemical odor resulting from the office’s cleaning materials.

Hinkson complained again to Givens in January 2018 that the situation had become unbearable. He suspected his sensitivity to strong odors, such as the chemical smells from cleaning products, was related to his autism. He also informed Givens that he had scheduled an appointment with a psychologist for an autism evaluation.

According to the complaint, Givens became visibly upset, putting his finger in the plaintiff’s face, and demanded that the plaintiff be seen by Pitt’s Employment Assistance Program, citing that he was the plaintiff’s supervisor and this was the course of action he was mandating.

Hinkson met with Andrea Kellman, the manager of EAP, on Feb. 5, 2018, and recounted the “explosive conversation” he had with his supervisor. Kellman referred Hinkson to Holly Marra, a psychotherapist who works with patients with autism, who diagnosed him with Asperger’s syndrome and drafted a report to support his diagnosis.

Hinkson later met with Jane Volk, the director of employee and labor relations on Feb. 23, 2018, after which his interactions with Givens improved, according to the complaint. The plaintiff received a satisfactory job review from Givens and was given an increase in pay in July 2018.

But Given’s treatment of the plaintiff “reverted back to hostility and confrontation” in August 2018, according to the complaint.

“Givens was overly demanding and constantly belittling towards the plaintiff and, on at least two occasions, again stuck his finger in the plaintiff’s face in fits of anger,” the complaint said.

The complaint claims Givens was aware that this gesture was triggering for Hinkson and that he did it purposefully.

Givens became upset with Hinkson in early October 2018 for missing work due to illness, according to the complaint, citing that he had not followed the office protocol for such matters. According to the complaint, Hinkson had followed the appropriate protocol in calling off work.

“[Givens’] constant demanding and belittling behavior towards me in the weeks prior to me reaching out to you makes my autism symptoms worse and has caused me many stress-related shutdowns during the past few weeks,” Hinkson said in an email to Volk. “I think it’s best probably best for me to get set up with FMLA for my autism and to prevent any further retaliation from [Givens] which could jeopardize my employment.”

Volk referred Hinkson to Stephanie Varholak, an employee relations specialist in the employee and labor relations department.

Hinkson’s colleague, Mack Friedman, was present for a meeting between Givens and the plaintiff on Oct. 8, 2018, during which Givens placed Hinkson on a Performance Improvement Plan to complete by the end of November 2018. According to the complaint, the purpose of the PIP was retaliation against Hinkson for bringing Givens’ behavior to the attention of human resources employees.

Varholak said the best the plaintiff could do was to complete the PIP successfully.

Following Friedman’s meeting with Givens to talk about the situation, the complaint said, Givens became more upset.

“Throughout October, Givens was even less congenial towards the plaintiff in one-on-one settings,” the complaint said. “The plaintiff reported this to Varholak and advised her that he was concerned that Givens was retaliating against him.”

Givens extended the deadline for the PIP through Dec. 6, 2018, scheduling a meeting with Hinkson the following day to discuss his performance and continued employment.

“Despite the plaintiff’s continuing diligent efforts during the last week of November into the first week of December, Givens determined that the plaintiff was not making progress and that he was not fulfilling the goals of the PIP,” the complaint said.

According to the complaint, Hinkson met with Givens and Hinkson’s colleague Sarah Krier on Dec. 11 or 12, 2018, where he was told he did not satisfy the terms of the PIP. Givens placed Hinkson on paid administrative leave.

While Hinkson was informed that HR would contact him in regard to his change in status, no representative ever contacted him, the complaint said.

Givens sent the plaintiff a termination letter on Jan. 29, 2019.