What Happens if You Can’t be Hired Because You are’t fit for Duty?

Many employers, particularly federal law enforcement, have medical standards that they use to disqualify potential employees. An employer generally may disqualify an employee if either it believes he cannot perform the essential functions of the job, or he would pose a “direct threat.” But federal agency employers often go well beyond this. Frequently federal employers employ various tests that prevent the hiring of people with minor health issues. Unfortunately, this means that persons are told they cannot work for relatively minor health issues. Well, that’s discrimination. And too many federal agencies stand by and let it happen.

Motion for Summary Judgment – A Quick Intro

A motion for summary judgment, or a “motion for decision without a hearing,” and how to respond, is probably the most important event in any litigation. It is where one side presents all of the facts that it can to convince the judge that no hearing or trial is required. For federal employees who are pursuing their EEO claims, this can be confusing. It is not like other motions. It is centrally important to how the EEO process functions.

Disability Pain Must be Accommodated by Agencies

A frequently overlooked aspect of disability accommodations is pain. Many federal employees who have requested reasonable accommodation experience moderate or severe pain even after accommodation. Pain can be a significant issue in obtaining the right accommodation.  Pain is also invisible. Many individuals have no way of describing the pain they are experiencing adequately. Many employees … Read more

Forcing employees to take leave instead of teleworking is an ADA violation

Forcing an employee to take leave is not a reasonable accommodation. The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to known disabilities of its employees. A specific accommodation, such as a ramp, is not required if providing it would be an undue burden on the employer. The ADA can require a lot of employers. And … Read more

Don’t Accept the Agency’s Reason for Not Hiring You

A lot of people learn that they didn’t pass the physical or some other medical examination when after receiving a conditional offer for a federal job. That’s actually a red flag that disability discrimination might be at work. The Nathan case – the FBI rejects an applicant because of monocular vision. Take the case of … Read more

Paternalism & Disability

Good intentions can be weaponized by a lack of empathy and understanding.  

A lot of what constitutes disability discrimination could be see, in some light, as as simply looking out for people and caring. Keeping an employee with a back injury from using a machine that hurt him. Preventing an employee with pregnancy complications from lifting heavy boxes. This is paternalism.

The idea that we know better. But we don’t. Every time we make a decision that diminishes another person’s options because we think it’s too hard or too dangerous, we rob that person of opportunity. If we do it because we think that person has limitations due to a physical or mental condition, that’s frankly illegal discrimination.

You don’t have to be disabled to be treated like you are.

It doesn’t matter if the person is actually disabled. When people consider someone to be disabled, and we stop the person from doing work, that is a form of disability imposed on the individual by us, by our expectations, by our ignorance and hubris, and our lack of empathy.

This isn’t simply academic to the many people who are on the business end of the subtle discrimination of lowered expectations. Good intentions are weaponized by our lack of understanding and empathy.

Federal laws make it illegal for federal agencies not to hire individuals because of a paternalistic view of what that person is capable of. A couple of cases highlight how this works.

EEOC cases focus on what a person can do, not what the agency assumes.

In the recent case, Johana S. v. Department of Agriculture, EEOC Appeal No. 0120131804 (2016), the federal agency prevented one of its criminal investigators who had a severe back injury from working out in the field. Because she was not permitted to do part of her job, the agency lowered her performance evaluation. The EEOC found that this constituted illegal discrimination against the employee.

Even though the back injury itself did not qualify as a “disability” per se under the law, the anti-discrimination laws extend to protect those who are “regarded as” being disabled. This happens when employers believe and act as if the person had a physical or mental impairment that was substantially limiting. The Supreme Court has stated:

Such an impairment might not diminish a person’s physical or mental capabilities, but could nevertheless substantially limit that person’s ability to work as a result of the negative reactions of others to the impairment. School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987).

It is the reaction of the agency, not the capabilities of the person, that are limiting.

Agencies have to show a high probability of substantial harm before refusing to hire someone.

In an older case, the agency treated an applicant as if he could not work at all for the postal service, despite that the agency’s own doctor examined him and found that he was “normal in every respect” and had “no current physical limitations or restrictions.” Daniel McManaway v. United States Postal Service, EEOC Appeal No. 01993233 (2002). The EEOC found that this was also unlawful discrimination.

The EEOC rejected USPS’s argument that there was a possibility of injury to the applicant, and that was sufficient reason not to hire him. The EEOC instead found that unless an applicant has a “high probability of substantial harm” to himself or others (sometimes known as a ‘direct threat’), the agency is just relying on bare speculation about a future that is unlikely to occur. Part of the reason for the ADA and other anti-discrimination laws is to prevent employers from refusing to hire people because of their assumptions about what a person is capable of.

Paternalism is, unfortunately, alive and well. But every time we take action and do something about it, we shine light on a small corner of darkness.

Fighting Inadequate & Delayed EEO Investigations

When federal employees file formal EEOC complaints, regulations require that the agency conduct an investigation within 180 days. (29 C.F.R. § 1614.108). The investigation must “develop an impartial and appropriate factual record” that enables the agency to make findings and, in appropriate cases, to award compensation to the victim. 

Unfortunately, agencies are responsible for conducting investigations against themselves. Agencies will sometimes delay investigations well beyond the 180 days that they are permitted under the regulations, and/or the agency will conduct an inadequate investigation. Employees become responsible for requiring the agency to conduct the investigation they should be legally entitled to. The cases below show that the EEOC is taking steps to ensure that agencies cannot just ignore employee’s discrimination complaints and attempt to sweep allegations of discrimination under the rug. 

Inadequate Investigations

Most investigations are conducted by outside contractors, although many of the DOD components and the VA have internal investigators (who are often quite good, in my experience). Contract investigators often have little incentive to develop evidence on behalf of the complainant employee. Two recent cases highlight how this can become a problem.

The Agency Interviews None of the Employee’s Witnesses

In Julius P. v. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 0120162827 (Mar. 6, 2018), a VA employee based in Texas was told that he could no longer use annual leave in place of sick leave, which had been exhausted. He was later told that he could only take leave for service-connected medical appointments. The supervisor began charging him AWOL when he was late to work instead of allowing him to take annual leave. Demoralized by his supervisor’s callous treatment, the employee began missing work, and requested Family and Medical Leave (FMLA). However, the agency charged him with AWOL. 

During the investigation, the employee provided the EEO investigator with a list of six witnesses to interview. The investigator failed to interview any one of these witnesses. Instead, the investigator only sought information from the supervisor and other management witnesses. 

The EEOC’s regulations require that an investigator identify and obtain “all relevant evidence from all sources regardless of how it may affect the outcome.” In this case, the EEOC found that this investigation “unfairly restricted the [employee’s] ability to prove . . . discrimination[.]” The EEOC noted that: 

An investigation must include “a thorough review of the circumstances under which the alleged discrimination occurred; the treatment of members of the Complainant’s group as compared with the treatment of similarly situated employees . . . and any policies and/or practices that may constitute or appear to constitute discrimination, even though they have not been expressly cited by the complainant.”

The EEOC remanded the investigation back to the agency to interview these witnesses and to conduct a thorough investigation as required under federal regulations. 

Agencies can Ignore Witnesses only if Interviews are Shown to be ‘Unduly Burdensome’

In a similar case, Emiko S. v. Dep’t of Commerce, EEOC Appeal No. 0120170543 (Apr. 27, 2017), the EEOC reversed the agency’s finding of no discrimination where the agency failed to interview nine of the ten witnesses identified by the complainant employee. The one witness who was interviewed stated that she saw a “downward spiral” in the relationship between the employee and his managers after the employee began to complain about her treatment. Despite this, the investigator claimed that the other witnesses probably did not have relevant information. 

The EEOC found instead that there was no basis for the investigator to fail to interview these witnesses identified by the complainant employee. An investigator may only ignore witnesses identified by the complainant employee if contacting the witnesses would have been “overly burdensome”—meaning that information to be provided by these employees was clearly outweighed by the time and effort needed to conduct the interview. The investigator must include a reason why this is the case. 

Employees face an uphill battle in getting investigations completed by the agency. Unfortunately, it has in many instances become the job of the employee to hold the agency to account for investigators failing to do their job adequately. Fortunately, the EEOC is policing the agencies and requiring complete investigations. 

See also: 

Delayed Investigations

Another problem that federal employees face is an agency that delays or completely fails to conduct any investigation at all. The agency has a legal obligation under the regulations to conduct an investigation and to do so in a timely manner. Failure to do so not only deprives the employee of the opportunity to obtain evidence to support a discrimination claim, it prevents the EEOC from effectively overseeing federal agencies’ compliance with the anti-discrimination laws. 

In Complainant v. Deborah Lee James (Air Force), EEOC Appeal No. 0720090009, the EEOC issued sanctions against the Air Force for delaying in providing the EEOC with the complainant’s file. The agency claimed that it had tried to contact the administrative judge about the case. However, the administrative judge noted that she had been present in the office the entire week and her email and phone number had been provided to the agency’s attorney. The other excuses that the agency provided for its failure to comply with requirements were found not to be a ‘good cause’ for delaying the case. 

The EEOC has issued default judgment in certain cases where the agency had no good cause for failing to investigate allegations of discrimination properly. That is, it has found in favor of the employee without allowing the agency to provide evidence in its own favor.

The EEOC has issued this ultimate punishment in EEOC cases where the agency has simply ignored its obligation to conduct an impartial investigation. Hopefully more cases like these will not have to be decided by the EEOC before the agencies get the message.

Employees need to stay vigilant

The EEOC can only issue sanctions against the agency when the employee comes forward and holds the agency’s feet to the fire. Employees who are facing long waits and uphill battles with agencies should consider filing for sanctions. These cases should provide employees with ammunition to get sanctions and to hold agencies accountable. 

Federal Employee Free Phone Consultation

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