A gay former employee in Fulton's troubled health department and HIV prevention programs will receive a $475,000 payment after suing for being fired when he complained about facing anti-gay harassment and bullying.

Walker Tisdale (photo), a senior public health educator for Fulton's HIV education, screening and prevention efforts in the county health department, alleged in a lawsuit that two supervisors berated him as a "sissy," criticized his "gay voice," threatened to cut off his genitals and belittled HIV-positive gay black men. Tisdale also alleged that he was forced to sign documents that he had performed only work that was paid for with a federal grant when he had done other work as well. 

The grant was among those from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for HIV prevention and education that erupted in controversy in 2015 when WABE reported that the county health department lost nearly $9 million in HIV funding.

When Tisdale complained about the treatment, he alleged that he was retaliated against, received poor work performance reviews and fired in 2013.

Tisdale filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in June 2013. He was fired a month later by Patrice Harris, the Fulton health director who resigned in 2015 during the HIV funding scandal in her department. Media reports showed that Harris helped block efforts to fix the HIV grant problems exposed in the health department.

Tisdale filed a federal lawsuit in January 2014 claiming that the county retaliated against him and violated the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Georgia Whistleblower Act. Fulton officials denied any wrongdoing in a response to the lawsuit file in March 2014.

But now, Fulton commissioners have approved a $475,000 payment to Tisdale over the lawsuit, according to the AJC.

Tisdale, a former journalist and longtime HIV prevention and education specialist, is executive editor of the health and lifestyle site Healthy Black Men. He could not be reached for comment. Fulton County attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker told the AJC that the county is "glad that this matter has been resolved and the case closed.”


'Sissy boys' and 'gay voice'

 

Tisdale was hired in August 2012 as a senior public health educator for Fulton's HIV education, screening and prevention efforts in the county health department. Months later – in January 2013 – Tisdale filed an internal complaint alleging "degrading treatment" from two supervisors – Suzanne Luker and Victoria Hartwell, according to the lawsuit.

Hartwell was hired in April 2012 as a health program administrator in the county health department – four months before Tisdale. Luker was hired as a health program manager in January 2013. Harris fired Hartwell in July 2014 – nearly a year after Tisdale complained of the mistreatment and was fired by Harris.

In a deposition, Tisdale accused Hartwell of yelling at him in front of co-worker about his sexual orientation "in a negatory and disparaging way." Hartwell also threatened to cut off Tisdale's genitals, he said.

Tisdale also pointed to anti-gay comments that Hartwell allegedly made to him in November 2012.

"On one occasion I remember that it stands out, we were talking about HIV prevention and the HIPP Grant, and the focus of priority populations were black men who have sex with men, and she made the comment that all y'all are infected anyway, I don't know what we're going to do with y'all, meaning black MSM, and the way she responded inferred that I was infected and I was a gay man who was infected with HIV and infecting other people."

Tisdale said in a deposition in February 2015 that Hartwell was cracking under pressure in her role as administering HIV prevention and education grants from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Tisdale was being questioned by an attorney for Fulton County.

A. But that I felt that she was being overwhelmed in the workplace, like it was a large grant to administer, and I'm not sure of her experience in doing it. So because I had experience coming from Centers for Disease Control, she relied on me heavily before those other managers were hired and so there was this sense that she could talk to me in a very casual way.

Q. Okay.

A. Part of that was I got a million dollars worth of staff out here and if we don't pull this off, you know I'm going to cut your balls off.

Q.  So was she saying it in jest?

A.  I wasn't laughing.

Q.  Obviously, I know that you were offended by it. Did she appear to be joking when she said it? 

A. I took it as a threat.

Q. So you took it seriously her saying that?

A. Absolutely.

Tisdale also alleged that Luker called him a "sissy boy" and Hartwell chastised him and another male employee in the office for their "gay voice."

Q. Yeah. Okay. So when she when you use the term "a gay voice," and I'm doing air quotes. But when you use that term, was the specific term used "gay voice" or was it like "a high-pitched voice" or what was the specific language used, as best you can recall?

A. I recall Ms. Hartwell, and I'm paraphrasing, "Man up. Don't talk with your gay voice, talk with your man voice." Something to that effect.

A few weeks after Tisdale's initial complaint, his job performance was criticized in a performance review and the probationary period of his employment was extended. On March 4, 2013 Tisdale complained again, writing that two female supervisors – Hartwell and Luker– were bullying him and making unwanted sexual advances, according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiff was subjected to sex-based harassment by Luker and Hartwell including, but not limited to, being called “sissy,” being told to “grow a set of balls” so Hartwell could “cut them off,” and being criticized for his “gay voice,” and being subjected to inappropriate sexual touching by Luker, which included her rubbing his arms and shoulders and telling him he could “take care of her and [she] would take care of him.”

Tisdale complained a third time, in May 2013, about inappropriate sexual comments, touching and retaliation by one of his supervisors and in June was moved to a new supervisor. But Hartwell also pursued performance reviews that criticized Tisdale's alleged deficiencies, according to the lawsuit.

On June 27, 2013, Tisdale filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In August, Tisdale filed another internal complaint alleging that Patrice Harris – the Fulton health director who later resigned – and Hartwell continued to retaliate against him and assign him job duties that weren't consistent with other senior public health educators.

On Aug. 13, the lawsuit alleged, Tisdale was asked to sign a document that he had performed only grant work that the county received federal dollars to fund. But Tisdale said he had also done work outside the scope of the grant as well.

Ten days later, on Aug. 23, Tisdale said in a statement provided to supervisors that he was concerned about the expanded job duties, and ongoing retaliation and harassment. Harris responded by firing him on Aug. 27.

In 2013 – after a six-year legal fight – Fulton paid a former gay county employee $1.7 million after he won a federal lawsuit alleging that he was passed over for a promotion based on race and gender.