Hasan Gokal, a Texas doctor, made national headlines 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.
Gokal 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.
A judge initially dismissed the charges against him, and in June, a grand jury determined that no criminal charges were warranted against Gokal. The Texas Medical Board also dismissed a complaint against him in March.
Gokal is now suing Harris County Public Health for more than $1 million in damages, alleging that the agency discriminated against him on the basis of his South Asian race and Pakistani national origin.
"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."
A spokesperson for the HCPH declined to comment on the lawsuit. The district attorney's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Gokal told BuzzFeed News that he filed the lawsuit with the hope of revealing details of his side of the story and a "pattern" of discrimination at the public health agency.
He said he was also concerned about the way the public health department was "approaching people of certain minorities" in his community and wanted to bring attention to it.
On Dec. 29, 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 in a vial that had been opened just as the vaccination site shut down for the night, and Gokal had six hours left to administer the doses before they expired.
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, according to the lawsuit.
After informing his superior that he was going to find people to vaccinate, Gokal made calls and lined up 10 people in his community who were at risk due to underlying health conditions. Some patients turned up at his house to be vaccinated, while he made house calls to inoculate the others.
After one patient couldn't make it in time and with minutes to spare before the vaccine expired, Gokal gave his wife — who has a pulmonary disease — the last dose.
On Jan. 7, HCPH officials fired 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, Kim Ogg, the Harris County district attorney, charged Gokal with theft by a public servant, accusing 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, neighbors, or acquaintances of acquaintances, he said. They all happened to be South Asian because he lived in a predominantly South Asian community, Gokal said.
Ogg also accused Gokal of disregarding county protocols to ensure the vaccines were not wasted and were only administered to eligible people on a "waiting list."
However, at the time, the HCPH had not set up its protocols or a written waiting list for the vaccine, according to the lawsuit.
After a criminal court judge dismissed the case against Gokal, the district attorney took the case to a grand jury which also found no probable cause to prosecute him.
HCPH had also filed a complaint with the Texas Medical Board to strip Gokal of his license, but the board dismissed the complaint, saying that Gokal administered doses to eligible patients "that would have otherwise been wasted."
The lawsuit states that Gokal is finding it hard to get another job after HCPH's "misinformation campaign" turned potential employers away.
"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."