Relief from an Erie County deputy's lawsuit over on-the-job headaches has cost more than an aspirin.
Deputy William A. Julicher, who claims exposure to fluorescent lights triggers his migraine headaches, has received $19,000 to settle a lawsuit he brought after former Sheriff Thomas F. Higgins refused to assign him to road-patrol duties.
The county was skeptical of the initial $300,000 federal lawsuit, but eventually saw the light after a doctor the county hired to examine the deputy confirmed the medical condition.
"It's not a reasonable settlement at all, but I didn't want the same problems I had with Tom Higgins. There's a new administration in the department, and I wanted to move on," Julicher said.
Julicher said each time he sought a transfer from foot-patrol duties inside fluorescent-lit county buildings to outdoor patrol work, he was threatened with assignment to the department's Chestnut Ridge radio room, which is illuminated by fluorescent lights.
"It was to stick it to me because I didn't get along with Higgins. I hadn't supported him in one of his elections," said Julicher, whose lawsuit claimed discrimination for failing to accommodate him with reasonable working conditions under terms of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Higgins contends the lawsuit amounted to legalized theft of taxpayers' dollars.
"It was a bad case, and I think it was wrong, but the longer the case goes on, the higher the lawyer fees. To me, it is legal larceny," Higgins said.
In the lawsuit, filed in 1997, the deputy quoted Higgins as saying his medical condition was "ridiculous" and that "doctors will write anything for you today."
The retired sheriff declined to discuss statements attributed to him in the legal papers, though he did not deny saying them when asked.
County attorneys had planned to vigorously fight the lawsuit until their strategy of obtaining expert medical testimony to assist them backfired.
"Faced with the prospect of having our expert neurologist testify that she concurred with the diagnosis of the plaintiff's doctor and with the understanding that the county would be forced to pay the plaintiff's legal bills, we felt we were left with no other alternative but to settle," Second Assistant County Attorney Russell T. Ippolito Jr. said.
If Julicher had won the lawsuit and had been awarded as little as $1, the county -- under rules of the federal court system -- would have been required to pay his attorney fees "which would have been approximately $15,000," Ippolito said.
The county also might have been liable for the cost of hiring lawyers to defend Higgins and Chief Thomas Staebell, who personally were named as respondents in the lawsuit that attorney Jennifer A. Coleman filed on Julicher's behalf.
Julicher, a deputy for 19 years, says his medical condition has improved since he was transferred to night shift road patrol after Sheriff Patrick M. Gallivan took office in 1998.
"I'm probably 75 percent better. I still get migraines about once a month," he said, noting the headaches first started in 1986. "I'm still exposed to fluorescent lighting because I'm in and out of courtrooms transporting prisoners."
At one point when the headaches began intensifying earlier this decade, Julicher tried wearing sunglasses inside buildings with fluorescent lighting, but that failed in providing relief, he said.
"The doctors claim it is not the brilliance, but the rapid flashing of the fluorescent light that triggers the headaches," Julicher explained. "I found the only relief I could get was sitting in a locker room at work with the lights out."
When a migraine takes hold, the 47-year-old Julicher says he is unable to function.
"My biggest complaint is confusion. I can't comprehend a conversation. I can write a police report, but it won't make any sense," he said.
Dr. Laszlo Mechtler, a migraine specialist, described the condition as an "episodic disabling headache" with a number of "triggers."
"In some individuals, fluorescent lighting can be a trigger. There's also migraines associated with sound sensitivity, food, chocolate, weather, hormonal changes, and alcohol, especially red wine," said Mechtler, an associate professor of neurology at the Dent Neurologic Institute at the University of Buffalo.
The best way to avoid migraines is to avoid "trigger factors," the doctor said, adding "there are also excellent medications."
Julicher hopes to continue his career in law enforcement and someday transfer to daytime road patrol. Natural light, he said, does not trigger his headaches.