A scientific glassblower who sued Caltech, alleging he was wrongfully fired in 2018 in retaliation for complaining about not being provided proper work accommodations for his medical conditions, has reached a settlement in his lawsuit against the school, attorneys in the case told a judge Thursday.
In the wake of the announcement of the resolution of plaintiff Brian Markowicz’s Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit, Judge Richard L. Fruin cancelled Monday’s scheduled date to start trial.
The suit was filed in October 2020 and alleged wrongful termination, discrimination, retaliation and failure to accommodate. Before working at Caltech, Markowicz was a scientific glassblower for the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech. In their court papers, Caltech lawyers denied any liability on the university’s part and argued Markowicz was not entitled to damages.
Markowicz is among a dwindling number of those practicing the century-old profession of creating glass apparatus and other vessels for researchers in chemistry, engineering, physics and other fields.
“The occupation is exceedingly rare, there are only about 40 university glassblowers in the nation,” the lawsuit stated. “Plaintiff took a great deal of pride in his work and had a spotless work record with no write-ups or disciplinary action.”
Markowicz said he planned to spend the rest of his career at Georgia Tech until he was contacted by Caltech in 2016 about a job. During his subsequent interview, he disclosed his history of spinal and head injuries and also explained that he received accommodations at Georgia Tech that included modified glass shop equipment and a flexible schedule, according to his court papers.
“He was promised his disability would be accommodated by (Caltech) and assured a $50,000 budget for renovations,” the suit stated.
Markowicz says he took the Caltech job based on the Pasadena university’s assurances and started working there in January 2017. But no one discussed his disability needs with him, so he emailed two management people requesting installation of his modified equipment, which included a special torch and a foot switch enabling him to power a torch without using his hands, the suit stated.
Markowicz said he complained about fumes while running the ventilation system and was given conflicting reasons for the causes, including one explanation that they came from an incinerator for the animal laboratory at the end of the floor.
Frustrated with the lack of progress on the requested renovations and sick from the fumes, Markowicz asked for a meeting with the two managers, but only one showed up and was dismissive about the plaintiff’s complaints about the smell, the suit alleges.
Due to significant pain from working without his modified equipment, Markowicz used resistance bands and weights to assist him in stretching exercises and a floor mat he needed to lie down on the floor, according to his court papers. One manager repeatedly made sarcastic remarks about the equipment, including, “What are you doing, trying to get buff to get some girls?,” the suit alleged.
Markowicz’s request for a student worker to assist him 10 to 15 hours weekly was denied, and when he complained about the alleged lack of shop safety to another employee, the latter replied, “You should keep that to yourself because if you keep asking, you will be labeled as a whiner and forced out,” the suit stated.
Markowicz said he began psychiatric treatment in October 2017 and was prescribed antidepressant medication due to emotional problems stemming from the Caltech workplace conditions. Two months later, he reported alleged safety hazards, including leaking gas lines and asbestos in the glass shop back room, the suit stated.
Caltech ordered a safety inspection and Markowicz was ordered to remove the asbestos from the shop without being provided proper personal protective equipment, the suit alleged.
In April 2018, Markowicz says he called the Pasadena Fire Department regarding the ventilation system and other issues. Because the PFD and Caltech chemistry department have an “excellent relationship,” neither an inspection nor an investigation were done and one Caltech manager was “clearly displeased” with the plaintiff’s complaint, calling it an example of his “erratic” behavior, the suit alleged.
Markowicz was put on medical leave from April 23-May 14, 2018, and he told one manager that his doctors found a cervical spine problem that had been causing neurological symptoms in his left upper extremity, the suit stated.
Markowicz said he was fired on May 30, 2018, and was told his health insurance was good for another month, but was subsequently informed it expired on the day of his termination.