OMAHA -- David Bighia doesn’t know whether to pack up or hunker down.
The Army veteran is facing foreclosure on his home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills within weeks. His house will be auctioned on the steps of the Sarpy County Courthouse.
This, even though the Air Force owes him a job and more than $1 million in lost wages and retirement pay, plus damages and attorney’s fees after he was denied a job as a military historian in 2014 for medical reasons, Bighia and his lawyers say.
Late last year, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission judge in San Antonio ruled the Air Force had violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 when it revoked the job offer because of Bighia’s medical condition. The act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities.
On June 29, another judge further directed the Air Force to pay $976,540 in damages and attorney fees, plus offer him a new job (including an unspecified amount of back pay and retirement pay) within a month.
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It did neither — at least until last week, when Bighia was offered a job at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas. He has until Oct. 8 to decide whether to accept the offer.
Bighia called the job offer “a welcomed step in the right direction.” But he and his lawyers have heard nothing from the Air Force regarding the back pay. He needs that money to stave off foreclosure.
“I want to be compensated for the financial devastation this has wrought on my family,” Bighia said last week. “I want to go back to work. Just let me do the job I was hired to do.”
An Air Force spokeswoman declined to answer any questions about the case because, she said, there is still an appeal pending.
A brief supporting the Air Force’s appeal argued that compensatory damages (totaling $352,812) and attorney fees ($623,728) should be reduced because Bighia only “partially prevailed” in the EEOC’s ruling in December 2021.
In June, the EEOC judge rejected that argument, saying it is “not persuasive and shall be put to rest quickly.”
Bighia’s attorney, Keith Taubenblatt, criticized what he described as the Air Force’s “woeful noncompliance” with the judge’s order.
“They’ve lost their case,” he said. “But they are nonetheless going to cause Dave and his wife to lose the house. It’s unconscionable.”
Bighia, 61, grew up in Bellevue, the son of an Air Force veteran who served at Offutt Air Force Base. He graduated from Bellevue East High School in 1979.
He played soccer for a year on a scholarship at a small college in Kansas City, then transferred to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a history major.
Bighia’s older brother, an Army officer and Vietnam War veteran, influenced him to sign up for ROTC. He joined the Army Reserve in 1981 and was commissioned in the quartermaster corps, working as a historian in environmental compliance.
His job included reviewing construction plans at Army properties to ensure they were consistent with historic preservation rules.
Bighia left the Army in 1997, as a captain, after a series of deployments — including one to Rwanda following the 1994 genocide there — took a toll on his home life. He held a series of civilian jobs in the field, including a stint in the mid-2000s as the 55th Wing historian at Offutt.
His family stayed in Nebraska even as he took federal jobs out-of-state — in Mississippi (after Hurricane Katrina), in Missouri, in Texas. His marriage collapsed, which he said took a toll on his health.
“I had pretty much lost everything — my home, my kids, everything. That was creating an incredible amount of stress,” Bighia said.
He suffered a heart attack in 2008, and a second one three years later, but his condition stabilized after surgery, he said.
In late 2013, Bighia, now remarried, was ready to return to work. He applied for a job as an Air Force historian at Laughlin, on the Mexican border about 150 miles west of San Antonio. The job paid about $65,000.
“It was intended as a steppingstone to get back into the federal workforce,” Bighia said.
The interview, he said, was “wonderful.” He was offered a job, conditional on passing a pre-employment physical. The job required him to be deployable worldwide; he already knew he would be sent on an assignment to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, which has an 11-bed hospital and clinic.
In fact, Bighia said, “All the possible deployment areas had medical facilities.”
But in March 2014, the Air Force withdrew its job offer, citing his health condition. It stated that he was ineligible because of the possibility that future deployments might occur in areas without medical clinics.
Bighia requested a “reasonable accommodation” for his disability under the Rehabilitation Act. The Air Force quickly denied it, arguing no similar exceptions had ever been granted for historians before.
“If exceptions were granted,” the Air Force stated, “the exception to deployment readiness would become the standard and the function of the Historian career field would fail in its operational mission.”
In April 2014, Bighia filed a complaint with the Air Force’s EEO office. An internal investigation by the agency revealed that the Air Force employed five historians who were unable to deploy overseas, for health or other reasons. Bighia asked for a full hearing before an EEOC administrative judge.
A seven-year ordeal of stalemate and delay followed. Taubenblatt blamed Air Force lawyers for frequently missing deadlines for turning over documents or answering written questions by opposing attorneys. He said the judge at times did not enforce deadlines.
“The Agency was intransigent. It was not responsive to requests,” he said.
Four times Bighia’s lawyers had to file motions to compel the Air Force to turn over items during the discovery process. A case Taubenblatt said would typically be wrapped up in two or three years stretched to seven.
For Bighia, that had major financial consequences. He continued to look for work, in and out of government — applying for more than 200 jobs since 2014, he estimated.
But he was passed over for several government jobs because his credit rating had slipped. He fell behind on his bills after the years of ill health and limited employment.
“I’m scrambling. Time is moving forward. The bills are piling up,” Bighia said. “The longer it went on, the harder it became to get employed.”
Twice he got temporary jobs at museums — one with the Army at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the other with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park, near Fort Calhoun. They didn’t change his long-term financial picture.
Bighia bought his four-bedroom, two-story house in 2005 for $189,900 using a VA loan, according to records with the Sarpy County Assessor’s Office. He declined to say how much he owes on the mortgage.
Five previous times, he has filed for bankruptcy ahead of foreclosure because filing postpones a trustee sale for 30 days, he said. His house was slated to be auctioned on the courthouse steps Sept. 21, but Taubenblatt said he learned Wednesday the sale has been canceled — for now. It’s likely to be rescheduled within a few weeks.
“This isn’t over,” he said.
Bighia said it’s especially frustrating because he feels he should have had the money long ago. Last December, the EEOC judge granted summary judgment in Bighia’s favor — the courtroom equivalent of a slam-dunk win.
He said his lawyer was excited about the ruling. But he refused to get his hopes up.
“I always felt the other shoe was going to drop,” Bighia said. “Sure enough, it’s been one shoe after another.”
In the months since, the Air Force never challenged the ruling, Taubenblatt said. And it never paid what a judge ruled was owed.
“It’s just incredible. I can’t believe it — I’m beside myself,” Bighia said. “They have a means to resolve this problem today. They’re just not doing it.”