Texas doctor sues county for wrongful termination, alleges racial discrimination

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Texas doctor Hasan Gokal made headlines in the US when he was fired from Harris County Public Health (HCPH) in January after being accused of stealing COVID-19 vaccines and giving them to friends and family members.

All charges against him have now been cleared and the Texas Medical Board also dismissed the complaint against him.

Gokal had denied the accusations, saying he was being punished for giving 10 doses of the Moderna vaccine from an already-opened vial that was about to expire to at-risk patients in his community.

Now, Gokal suing Harris County Public Health for more than $1 million in damages, alleging that the agency wrongfully terminated him and discriminated against him on basis of his South Asian race and Pakistani national origin, Buzzfeed News reported.

“Dr. Gokal tried to save lives without regard to race,” the lawsuit says, but HCPH terminated him for not distributing the vaccine “equitably” and for giving the vaccine to “too many ‘Indian’ sounding at-risk patients.”

The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday, accuses HCPH of providing misinformation to the district attorney’s office and the Texas Medical Board to justify firing Gokal, saying that he “went through a tortured six-month criminal investigation during which time his reputation was tarnished, his confidence was shattered, and he and his family were subjected to emotional distress.”

The lawsuit said that Harris County Public Health did not properly investigate the allegations made against Gokal. The department “never interviewed Dr. Gokal, never took his statement, never asked for his side of the story, conducted no internal investigation of the matter, and never sought to get the facts straight,” the lawsuit states.

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Last year, Gokal, who served as HCPH’s medical adviser for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout at the time, was supervising the county’s first vaccine distribution event.

There were 10 doses of the Moderna vaccine left at the end of the night, and Dr Hasan Gokal had six hours left to administer them before they expired.

According to the lawsuit, he asked various on-site staff, including two police officers, if they wanted to be vaccinated, but they had all either already received a shot or declined to get the vaccine.

After informing his superior that he was going to find people to vaccinate. He found 10 people with underlying health conditions who said they would take the vaccine doses. Over the next five hours, Gokal drove around the Houston area to distribute the vaccine to nine people. He couldn’t reach the 10th person before the vaccine vial would expire, so Gokal gave the last dose to his wife, who has a lung disease that affects her breathing.

On Jan 7, HCPH officials terminated Gokal after accusing him of stealing the vaccine and of not distributing it “equitably.”

“But what do you mean by ‘equitably’?” Gokal told BuzzFeed News he asked them during his termination meeting. “Are you saying there are too many Indian names in the group?”

“They said, ‘exactly,'” Gokal said.

The officials also told him that he should have thrown away the vaccines instead, the lawsuit alleges.

A few weeks later, the Harris County district attorney, charged Gokal with theft by a public servant, and accused him of stealing a vial of COVID-19 vaccine.

“He abused his position to place his friends and family in line in front of people who had gone through the lawful process to be there,” Ogg said in a press release. “What he did was illegal and he’ll be held accountable under the law.”

Gokal said that apart from his wife, none of the other patients were his family members or friends. Some were acquaintances, neighbours, or acquaintances of acquaintances, he said. They all happened to be South Asian because he lived in a predominantly South Asian community, Gokal said.

Although Gokal was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing by the courts and the medical board, the lawsuit said he struggled to find work after his termination, the Washinton Post reported.

While the medical board reviewed the complaints and the courts considered the criminal charge lodged against Gokal, the doctor “could not work because employers were reluctant to hire him given the publicity of the allegations made against him,” the lawsuit said. It added: “Dr. Gokal went through a tortured six-month criminal investigation during which time his reputation was tarnished, his confidence was shattered, and he and his family were subjected to emotional distress.”

“Imagine if I was a white doctor and I went out and gave [the vaccine] to 10 white people. Do you think I would have had someone question that ‘you didn’t do it equitably because there were too many white people in your group?'” Gokal told BuzzFeed News. “I just can’t imagine that.”

Compiled from various reports.

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