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When armed services veteran David P. Bighia walked out of the exam room after his pre-employment health assessment, he felt confident that he would be able to start his dream job as a military historian at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio.
He had no idea it would lead to years of financial ruin and imminent home foreclosure.
More than eight years after that doctor’s appointment, Bighia is fighting the Air Force in an employment discrimination case. A judge has already ruled that the Air Force illegally rescinded a job offer and ordered that branch of the military to pay more than $1 million in damages.
But Bighia has received nothing but a home foreclosure notice from his bank. He and his legal team are tired of waiting.
Now 61 and living in Nebraska, Bighia has been fighting the Air Force, which said it retracted its job offer because officials believed — based on comments from the physician at the physical — that Bighia could not perform his duties.
But according to case documents, Bighia could have served with reasonable accommodation for a heart condition. An administrative judge at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said the Air Force’s actions violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Bighia’s case against the Air Force has lasted unusually long. The average processing time for employment discrimination cases like this filed between 2013 and 2019 in the U.S. Air Force averaged about two years, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of federal data.
The Air Force declined to comment for this article because the matter is still under adjudication.
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What has prolonged the case is how much the Air Force is willing to pay Bighia, according to his lawyers. The Air Force has appealed not the judge’s decision that officials illegally retracted Bighia’s job offer, but how much it owes him for doing so. The case, legal experts said, raises questions about how much the federal government is on the hook for when it is found guilty of discrimination.
“Just because you violate the law, that doesn’t answer the question of what remedy is appropriate,” said Ryan Nelson, an assistant professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “The remedy at issue here appears to be damages. He wants money. But how much does he get?”
After the military, bankruptcies
Bighia grew up in a military family.
In 1981, while in college, he decided to join the Army Reserves and began training in the reserve officer training program. After several years in the military, Bighia tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and transfer to the Air Force. He didn’t like to fly and rejoined the Army. After 16 years in service between the two branches, he decided to leave the military. He did so with an honorable discharge.
After leaving active duty, he went to work as an army historian, a civilian job. Then in 2013, he applied for the Air Force job, which would have been a promotion.
The father of five was offered the new Air Force job contingent on a health screening and other factors. Just days after his physical, the job offer was rescinded.
Bighia was crushed. He struggled personally and financially although he had the support of his family, he said.
“My wife was extremely patient with me, as were my children … but yet you’re living with someone who’s under a tremendous amount of stress, and the outside forces against your household are incredible,” Bighia said. “It permeates every aspect of your life. … That underlying stress leeches onto your family members.”
Bighia said he fell behind on home mortgage payments and resorted to filing for bankruptcy as a tool to stop foreclosure activity.
“I don’t have a lot of debt, and I don’t want people to think I have a gambling problem or something like that because I don’t, I have house debt,” Bighia said. The bankruptcy filings essentially stopped any foreclosure proceedings while the bankruptcy process was underway.
Without a source of income, he did not qualify for many loss-mitigation programs available to him as a veteran and through his bank. The hope was that by filing for bankruptcy, Bighia would find work again and be able to resume payments, or that the case would be settled or otherwise resolved.
Since the loan delinquency came from a loss of employment and income, Bighia tried to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs home loan division, which can advocate for veterans on their behalf as home loan guarantors.
Bighia’s attorney, Keith Taubenblatt, intervened on Bighia’s behalf to show his creditors that he was expecting monetary relief after the judge’s summary decision. But failure to receive funds from the Air Force has kicked that relief farther down the road.
200 job applications
Bighia was supposed to receive payment from the Air Force earlier this summer — months before his home was scheduled for foreclosure on Wednesday. The check did not arrive in the mail. However, last week the VA intervened, allowing Bighia and his family to stay in their home for the time being.
Bighia with piles of documents outside his home in Bellevue, Nebraska.
Anna Reed for The Texas Tribune
His legal team has no faith in the Air Force, which filed an appeal. His lawyers have asked for the appeal to be dismissed.
While the case was pending, Bighia applied to more than 200 jobs but found it increasingly difficult to land work. His monthly disability check from the VA — less than $1,000 — doesn’t go far.
In some instances, he made it through the interview process but was denied employment based on his credit history, which is littered with bankruptcies following his unemployment.
Each time his hopes were raised only to be crushed again.
“It puts you in a quandary, in a funk,” Bighia said. “You try to paint a good picture to the family and to the spouse: ‘Hey, I’ve got an interview,’ and ‘ooh I’ve got an offer,’ and then ‘oh, I’ve got nothin.'”
As media attention was raised about Bighia’s case, the Air Force offered him a job in early September. However, he may not qualify for the proper security clearance due to the damage to his credit and financial history. Half of all security clearances in 2020 were denied for financial considerations.
“It would be ironic, you know,” Bighia said. “You get the job, and you’re there in the office and you’re doing your work, and then you can’t even get an interim clearance because of the financial hardship that they’ve inflicted upon you over the years is now a disqualifying factor to do the job.”
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