Project X

After a Southwestern Bell manager saved a woman's life, the phone company celebrated him as a hero. After he complained about what he alleges were racist billing practices, it fired him.

Starks did not return messages from the Observer left on her voice mail.
Although the shouting took place in Starks' office, it produced a stir throughout the department. Several employees listened at the door, then scrambled back before their eavesdropping was discovered. "The door started to open," Tankersly recalls, "and we flew back to our chairs."

Almost immediately, Hamilton knew he had gone overboard. He visited with his minister that evening. Recalls the Rev. Armour: "He came to me and said, 'I think I really blew it.'"

On December 9, the company received an anonymous letter about the incident, alleging that Hamilton was "abusive and dangerous." Although Southwestern Bell never established who wrote the letter, the company concedes in court papers that the letter played a role in the investigation that led to Hamilton's firing.

By December 21, Hamilton had visited with a psychiatrist, as the company-recommended therapist had suggested. Dr. Babette Farkas diagnosed Hamilton as suffering from non-psychotic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to a statement she sent to the Texas Employment Commission. She recommended that Hamilton leave work for a week until the medications she had prescribed took effect and returned him to "functioning in a rational 'common sense' manner."

Dr. Farkas wrote in the April 23, 1995, statement to the TEC: "Mr. Hamilton's behavior of November 30, 1994, was an understandable consequence of a psychiatric disorder and should not be interpreted as a rationalization or misconduct."

Written appraisals from his supervisors suggest that Hamilton--prior to the incident of November 30, 1994--had been an exemplary employee. In July 1993, Dorsey, who prepared the evaluation, and senior manager Thomas Rasberry, who endorsed it, signed an appraisal stating that "Mr. Hamilton has been the critical linking pin in the district's successful effort to meet customer access on Mondays...he used exceptional interpersonal skills to pull together...the district office into a highly effective, well functioning team. As a result, the [revenue-management center] managers are able to focus on employee development and the reduction of the company's uncollectible expense."

In an early December 1994 evaluation--after the incident in Stark's office--Dorsey and Rasberry muted their praise only slightly. "He usually has the right idea on how something should be done, but can benefit from a softer approach," they wrote. Nonetheless, Hamilton's bosses gave him high marks for planning work effectively, communicating clearly and concisely, and demonstrating an understanding "of who the customer is." His only low mark on a 19-item checklist came in the category of "coordinating and negotiating with other team members."

Yet on February 9, 1995--two months after that evaluation and five months after his conflict with Darlene Starks--Hamilton was escorted by Dorsey into the office of senior manager Thomas Rasberry. The two superiors informed Hamilton he was being fired.

Dorsey and Rasberry cited the encounter with Starks as evidence of his unstable behavior, Hamilton says, and they gave him no opportunity to defend himself or explain the unfortunate episode.

In court papers, Southwestern Bell contends Hamilton had an opportunity to respond, but offers no further explanation. Reached by telephone, Dorsey and Rasberry declined to discuss Hamilton's firing, citing the pending litigation. Southwestern Bell spokesman Chapa said "there were other factors" involved in Hamilton's firing besides the run-in with Starks, but declined to elaborate.

Eleven days after Hamilton received notice of his termination, the Mesquite City Council presented him with a Public Safety Assistance Award for "recognition of his courageous and unselfish action in the rescue of a Mesquite citizen from dangerous floodwaters."

Says Hamilton: "I wondered if I should tell them, 'Thanks. By the way, I've just been fired.'"

As for his $5,000 Southwestern Bell Vail prize, Hamilton, shortly after his termination, was advised by Rasberry that the award would not be forthcoming. The company supervisor advised Hamilton that he was "unworthy" of the honor.

These days, Hamilton supports his family with his wife's part-time income, his savings, and money he gets from vending machines he has purchased. His biggest concern is the ticking clock on his Southwestern Bell health-insurance benefits. Federal laws require companies to allow terminated employees to maintain coverage for at least 18 months at their own expense. Hamilton has about six more months of coverage.

His wife's multiple sclerosis is in remission, so the family remains optimistic, Hamilton says. Without full-time work, he spends several days a week taking care of the kids while his wife cleans teeth. He has some time to think.

When the weather gets bad, he still has nightmares, he says. When his mind turns to that stormy October night that triggered so many problems, he also asks himself if he would wade out into those waters again--and knows that he would.

"Even if my wife had not come back with the cord, I would have gone after her," says Hamilton. "I could not let a woman die.

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