Disabled and Discarded?
Inside a two-story house in the Ryan Place neighborhood on the South Side, Danny Swanson slowly wheeled himself into his den. Awaiting his arrival were his two Scottish terriers languidly curled on a blue couch. The large but cluttered room now doubles as his bedroom, as Swanson is unable to get upstairs. A small hospital bed facing a television is where he now spends much of his time. His house has been fitted with ramps and rails to help him get around.
Swanson has had two operations in the last four years to try to remove two separate malignant brain tumors. Because of his surgeries, he often loses track of thoughts and takes long pauses between words. His hands tremble as he speaks.
It wasn’t that long ago he was a high-ranking official in the accounting department of the Fort Worth school district. As the treasurer and cash investment manager, he dealt with hundreds of millions of dollars of investments for the district. His reviews were glowing, he had been promoted twice, and he had received various letters of accommodation.
But his 13-year career came to an abrupt halt when he went on temporary medical leave after developing the brain tumor in 2009. When he returned to work after treatment, he was reassigned to a new position that his attorney described as “sitting in an office in the back of the law department stuffing envelopes.” The job he was transferred to was summarily eliminated. When he reapplied for his former position, he was rejected twice.
He sued the district for discrimination, but his case was thrown out of court. During the course of the litigation, doctors discovered a second brain tumor. The second operation affected his health much more severely.
The second tumor also had severe impacts on Swanson’s career: While he was still suffering from its effects, he submitted to a deposition in the case, against the advice of his attorney, Christopher Heise. From that deposition, school district attorneys took statements from Swanson that they used to get the case thrown out.
“I think it was unfair for them to use [the deposition], said Heise. “It was physically evident that his was suffering.”
After his deposition, when it was clear to the district’s attorneys that Swanson’s health was deteriorating, Heise said the district refused to discuss the settlement offer he had proposed.
Heise said he’s convinced school district attorneys were banking on a rapid decline in Swanson’s health.
“It kind of became a deal where Fort Worth ISD wouldn’t even entertain any kind of offer that we proposed,” Heise said. “I believe, in their minds, they thought, ‘Let’s see how long Danny can live, because if he can’t testify, then his claim isn’t worth much.’
“The extreme decline in his health was quite evident during his deposition,” he said.
Heise said he plans to appeal the dismissal of the case in the near future.
Swanson also suffers from a mild form of focal epilepsy, which occasionally causes his right arm to seize up. Though he worked with the disorder for 13 years, during which time he received excellent reviews, Heise said that when former superintendent Melody Johnson was hired, some in her regime were uncomfortable with Swanson. The attorney said that when Swanson returned from medical leave, district officials saw it as an opportunity to force him out.
“They wanted to put him in the most demeaning position possible,” he said.
When Swanson took his medical leave, he told Fort Worth Weekly, he maintained communication with his bosses. But, he said, they would never respond and never told him what new position he would move into upon his return. When came back, he said, it was as though administrators had invented a position that they could then easily eliminate.
“It’s like they forgot about me,” he said. “There was nothing to do. I stuffed envelopes for two hours on my first day. That’s a degreed accountant doing a clerk’s job … .”
Swanson said he felt uneasy about his new gig and had to constantly ask his supervisors for tasks. He did the job without complaining because he still needed the income.
“A man’s got to eat,” he said.
Swanson believes the district intentionally tried to make his job miserable. Even though he walks with a cane, his parking space was moved from the front of the building to several blocks away. An attorney for the district said that when he changed departments, he also had to change parking spaces.
“It appears they went out of their way to make it difficult on me,” he said.
Attorneys for the district successfully argued that Swanson’s medical condition affected his cognitive abilities, making him no longer qualified to perform his initial job as treasurer. According to court documents, he admitted that he was unable to do mathematical calculations at even a junior high level.
“Swanson also admitted that, at that time, he was experiencing cognitive impairments affecting his organizational skills, his memory, and his ability to concentrate and write,” the documents said.
Heise said the district’s attorneys tooktestimony from one period — when Swanson’s memory had been affected — and used it as support for the district’s treatment of Swanson earlier, when his mental abilities were intact. “In fact, during his deposition he had one of his seizures, and the attorney didn’t suspend it,” Heise said.
District lawyers asserted that even before administrators became aware of his deteriorating condition, the district was forced to hire his replacement before his medical leave had ended, because of the importance of the position.
The attorneys asserted that his new position was eliminated because he was a high-salaried employee during a tough economic climate. Officials claim that neither his transfer nor the elimination of his job was a result of discrimination.
After his second brain surgery, Swanson retired due to medical reasons. He lost a significant amount of his pension and medical benefits.
Now, four years and two brain surgeries later, Swanson is burning through his savings. He maintained insurance coverage after his forced retirement, but he pays hundreds of dollars a month in out-of-pocket expenses: weekly doctor visits, a speech therapist, chemotherapy, a hospice nurse, and an aide that helps him bathe three times a week.
His recovery after his second surgery has been steady. For a time, he couldn’t speak or get out of bed.
He said he is pursuing the lawsuit because he doesn’t want to see other people go through what he’s experienced. And he’s looking to recoup some of the money he’s spent on his ordeal.
“Our life is totally different,” he said. “We do our best.”