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Disabled Man Sues College Over Firing : Courts: Jeff Gilman contends that he was terminated because of his Tourette syndrome symptoms. The college cites what it calls rude and abusive conduct and unreliability.

July 15, 1993|LOIS TIMNICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA MONICA — Meeting Jeff Gilman for the first time is a disquieting experience.

The red-faced 43-year-old Ocean Park man has a motor tic that causes him to jiggle the left side of his body uncontrollably. His blinded left eye is fixed in a stare. He talks incessantly and seems easily agitated. He repeatedly sniffs and snorts.

Santa Monica College fired him in 1991 after two years as a part-time assistant in its audio-visual department for what it says was "discourteous, offensive or abusive conduct," "incompetency" and "repeated or unexcused tardiness or absence."

But Gilman, whose condition has since been diagnosed as Tourette syndrome, a genetic neurological disorder, thinks he was fired because of his handicap. Santa Monica Community College District rules prohibit discrimination, including suspension, demotion or dismissal, because of an employee's disability or medical condition.

Now Gilman, backed by the California School Employees Assn. and its Santa Monica College chapter, is suing the college, the district's personnel commission and numerous officials for violating his civil rights and failing to follow proper disciplinary procedures leading to the dismissal that he contends was "arbitrary and capricious." He wants his old job back, compensation for his financial losses and a court order to the college to give him a fair hearing should it move against him in the future.

"They have to be stopped. They are brutal," Gilman said in an interview last week. "If they don't like you they go after you; they have taken years out of my life."

A Superior Court judge will soon hear arguments and decide the essential question: Was Santa Monica College justified in firing an unsatisfactory and obnoxious employee or did it misjudge an impaired worker?

"Because of the bizarre symptomatology of the disorder, it is often misunderstood," said Tourette Syndrome Assn. medical/scientific liaison Sue Levi-Pearl in Bayside, N.Y. "But once employers and insurance companies gain a better understanding of the disorder, often these cases can be settled without seeking legal remedies.

"We are not familiar with all the ins and outs of Jeff's case," Levi-Pearl added. "But we are supportive of his pursuing justice in what he thinks is discrimination. . . . We hope it shakes down in his favor and it gets a fair hearing."

Gilman concedes that he is sometimes perceived as threatening and aggressive. "People think I'm psychotic," he said. He has the characteristic motor tics of Tourette, but not the involuntary spewing of obscenities often associated with it. His sniffing, another symptom, suggests cocaine abuse to some. One colleague, in noticing his red face--the result of psoriasis and eczema--suggested that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous, Gilman said.

He has extremely poor vision, paces restlessly, and has been described in medical reports as having "mood and personality alterations with dysphoric obsessional, irritable and impulsive aspects" suggestive of brain damage. Despite having developed the first symptoms as a youngster, however, he earned a college degree and has been a substitute math teacher since moving here from New York City in the mid-1980s.

"But that's why this case is so important," Gilman said. "It's important to me, yes, but I really believe that an institution of higher learning went out of bounds here . . . technically, they fired a disabled employee."

It is not clear whether the college knew of his disability initially. His condition was diagnosed in 1984 in New York as chronic multiple motor tic of moderate severity. The UCLA Neurology Clinic diagnosed his disorder as Gilles de la Tourette syndrome in September, 1991--after he was fired but before the appeals hearing that upheld his termination.

The college declined comment through attorney Martine Magana.

But court records show that it backed its decision to fire Gilman with 43 documented complaints of rudeness, angry outbursts and bossiness that students, instructors and other staffers allegedly made to his supervisor, Frances Kurilich, director of the college's Learning Resource Center. Kurilich also kept a log noting every time Gilman was as little as five minutes late to work.

For his part, Gilman submitted letters from 10 students, instructors and staffers lauding his help and professionalism. He said he was "blown out" by the college's action, particularly after he had received several positive job evaluations that praised him for "exceeding standards."

What seems clear is that Gilman clashed repeatedly and increasingly with students who ignored his orders and with one colleague in particular who claims he harassed her.

He once called campus security, for example, after a female student put her feet up on the furniture in the Learning Resource Center. On another occasion, he allegedly ripped a student's paper from the typewriter and threw it away while the student was in the restroom.

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