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Intent on polishing the image of lawyers in a state where mistrust of the profession is far from uncommon, the State Bar of Nevada has adopted the friendly motto, “Making the law work for everyone.” Well, almost everyone. The 72-year-old bar association is in a curious position for a group that regulates the ethics of 5,901 attorneys. It stands accused of discrimination by a former employee, a gay Las Vegas man who says that he was fired in 1998 because he has the virus that causes AIDS. The bar contends that Paul Ortiz, who worked for its Lawyer Referral Information Service, was fired because of poor job performance. But on May 24, the federal government added heft to Ortiz’s claim, announcing that an investigation by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission supported his allegations and that if the bar doesn’t settle the matter, the EEOC will issue Ortiz a right-to-sue letter or take the case itself. Rather than heed the EEOC’s invitation, the bar has decided to circle its wagons. It has challenged the EEOC ruling and is seeking both a delay and the documents on which the federal agency based its decision, says the bar’s director of communications, Patty Blakeman, who would not comment on the facts of the case. But a series of interviews with current and former bar officials shows that the Ortiz case may be just the tip of the iceberg. A Nevada bar official who requested anonymity told The National Law Journal that “there is an atmosphere of discrimination against anyone here who is not a straight white male.” Las Vegas freelance journalist Pami E. Kowal, an attorney and Blakeman’s predecessor as bar spokeswoman, says the Ortiz case is part of a pattern that shows “a lack of sensitivity in both their everyday dealings with people who have [medical] problems and a lack of sensitivity to the Americans With Disabilities Act.” Kowal says that she and other bar employees were forced to quit when, after they developed chronic medical conditions, bar officials became reluctant to provide reasonable accommodation. Las Vegas employment lawyer Richard Segerblom, an attorney for Ortiz, warns that if the bar does not work out a settlement with his client, who is seeking $100,000 in lost pay and damages, it will find itself in federal court. “They’ll end up paying that much in just attorney’s fees,” he says. AFRAID OF THE BAR The State Bar of Nevada’s Lawyer Referral Information Service connects citizens looking to hire a lawyer with attorneys who practice in an area suitable for their case. The office in which Ortiz worked receives more than 100 calls a day, says the bar’s Web site. Ortiz, now 34, moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in June, 1997 to be with his domestic partner, then a student at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. During his first six months working for the Nevada bar, Ortiz says, he received positive reviews and was given more job responsibility. But in June 1998, when Stacie Murphy, the bar’s assistant executive director, learned that he was HIV positive, she quickly became critical of his performance, he says. Other bar officials noted his higher medical bills and his increased use of sick time, wrote Ortiz in his complaint to the EEOC. On Aug. 20, Murphy fired Ortiz, citing poor job performance and complaints from callers. Ortiz contacted the ACLU, and for several months both he and the group sought local counsel to take his case, but lawyer after lawyer turned them down, some afraid of what a less-than-solid employment discrimination case against the bar might mean for their livelihood. Nevada’s bar is a mandatory association that certifies and disciplines all lawyers admitted there. In early 1999, Ortiz finally found California disability law expert Vicki Laden, of Oakland’s Boxer & Gerson, whom he first saw when she appeared as a commentator on the PBS news program “The News Hour” with Jim Lehrer. “He left me a message saying he had HIV and told me that because his case was against the bar association, he had enormous difficulty obtaining counsel,” explains Laden. “I was skeptical about that claim,” but after deciding to try to find him local counsel, she says, she became less doubtful. Laden says that she spent more than a year trying to find a local lawyer to take Ortiz’s case and that more than 20 turned her down. In the meantime, she helped prepare his petition to the EEOC. In June of this year, Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, finally approached Segerblom, who agreed to represent Ortiz as local counsel shortly after the EEOC had issued its determination letter, which may be entered as evidence in any subsequent litigation. Peck says the Ortiz case illustrates the fear the state bar instills in Nevada lawyers. “Since none of them were willing to even look at the file, to assess the weight of the evidence and the credibility of the claim, I am quite confident they were not interested because the bar was the alleged discriminator,” he says. PRETEXT OR CAUSE? In countering the bar’s allegations that Ortiz was fired for cause, Laden provided the EEOC with documents showing that Ortiz’s call receipt rate at the referral service was at least equal to those of other employees. Laden charged that the bar’s explanation was a pretext and that the firing violated the ADA and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which prohibits firing an employee to avoid paying benefits. Ortiz says that when he was fired, Murphy refused to provide him with information on post-employment health benefits, and that the bar opposed his claim for unemployment compensation at a time when he was poor and suffering AIDS-related infections. Murphy, who no longer works for the bar, declines to comment, saying only that bar officials instructed her not to talk to the media. But in a July 29, 1999, letter to the EEOC, the bar painted a different picture. The letter alleges that Ortiz abused his sick days and had a rude telephone manner, and that his claim that he was fired because of medical costs was false because the bar’s insurer received “a premium payment” that was unaffected by individual expense. “Although Mr. Ortiz’ alleged medical condition is unfortunate,” the Nevada bar’s letter concludes, “the existence of HIV/AIDS does not require an employer to tolerate poor job performance.”

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