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.

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. 

3 Keys to the ADA’s Interactive Process

The ADA's Interactive Process, Getting to YES

Frequently, a federal employee will request a reasonable accommodation, and may even specify the accommodation he wants. The federal agency will respond by offering an accommodation that the employee may not desire. The employee then does not accept the offered reasonable accommodation from the agency. The employee does not continue the negotiations and instead files with the EEO office.

What to know about the ADA’s interactive process

If you find yourself in situations similar to this, there are three things that you should be aware of before going through the EEO office’s process.

  • The agency is required to go through an interactive process with you. At the core of any request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA is the interactive process between the employee in the employer. Both sides are responsible for interacting with each other to find a reasonable accommodation. That means that if one side or the other does not participate in trying to find a reasonable accommodation, that side can be blamed for failing to find an accommodation. That can subject a federal agency employer to liability under the ADA. For an employee, that can mean that even if no reasonable accommodation is provided, the EEOC will not fault the agency for failing to provide an accommodation.
  • The Agency does not have to give you your preferred accommodation. This may sound counterintuitive at first, but the agency can offer you a different accommodation than the one you were hoping for. However, if that accommodation does not allow you to perform your job, as an accommodation should, then the agency is responsible for trying alternatives and must at least consider your proposal. Part of the interactive process under the ADA is for the employee and the agency to work together to see if an accommodation actually works, and if not to figure out what alternatives there might be.
  • An accommodation must be possible. ADA accommodations are only required if there is some accommodation that would help the employee to be able to do his or her job. If no accommodation is feasible, then the ADA does not fault the employer for failing to provide an accommodation. This is because the ADA did not specifically make it unlawful to fail to participate in the interactive process – it is only unlawful if the process would have resulted in reasonable accommodation.

Federal agencies must provide qualified employees with accommodations

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees. However, if the employee cannot perform the essential functions of his or her job with any accommodation, the ADA does not require the employer to make an accommodation.

When it comes to accommodations, having a lawyer may be more important than having a doctor on your side. Doctors frequently do not understand the legal requirements of the ADA. A doctor may state that an employee is totally disabled and unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job under any conditions, believing that this will help the employee. However, when a doctor makes this kind of statement, it actually excuses the employer from providing any kind of reasonable accommodation because the employee is admitting that under no circumstances can he or she perform the job. Such an admission can be grounds for legal termination even under the ADA.

Employees need to be very careful when making requests for accommodations because it may imply that without an accommodation they cannot do the essential functions of their job. The ADA does not require employers to continue to employ employees who cannot perform the essential functions of their job even with an accommodation.

If you believe that you’re facing an issue with ADA accommodations at the federal agency where you work, you should seek out the advice of an attorney to avoid costly mistakes. In attorney can also help you develop the doctors record that you need in order to be able to qualify for reasonable accommodations at the agency.

Breach of EEO Settlement Agreements

Signing an agreement

Here is the situation that some federal employees find themselves in: the employee has previously brought a claim of discrimination and retaliation against the agency that they were working for, and the agency settled that claim through a settlement agreement. That settlement agreement included that the agency was going to remove disciplinary documents from the employees file. Years later, the employee applies for a new job and is mysteriously denied that job. The employee thinks that the agency failed live up to its commitments under the settlement agreement. What can an employee do?

This is the situation that a federal employee recently found himself in. In Tommy R. v. McDonald (Veterans’ Affairs), Appeal No. 0120162117 (EEOC 2016), Tommy suspected that the VA was in breach of its agreement with him to remove disciplinary documents from his file. He brought a claim for breach of the agreement directly with the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations in Washington, D.C. He claimed that he was frequently being passed over in job applications, and this was likely because of the old disciplinary documents in his file. He did not, however, get a copy of his personnel file to see whether the documentation at issue had in fact been removed.

Lessons about getting the Agency to comply with a settlement agreement

The EEOC held that Tommy had not proven that the agency was in breach of its obligations under its settlement agreement with him. This case has a number of lessons that any Federal employee who has an active EEO settlement agreement with a federal agency should know.

  • Find out whether there has actually been a breach. When an employee believes that there’s been a breach of the settlement agreement, there may be ways of finding out whether the agreement has actually been breached. For Tommy, he could have pulled a copy of his personnel file to check whether the discipline had actually been removed. By not doing this, he had no evidence that the agency had failed to live up to its commitment to remove the disciplinary documents from his file. Employees who believe that there is been a breach should immediately try to obtain evidence, if possible, that they can use to show a breach.
  • File with the EEO Office Director at the agency first. Before an employee can bring a claim a breach of a settlement agreement to the EEOC, the employee must first seek compliance through the agency’s EEO Office Director. In Tommy’s case, he failed to contact EEO Office Director first before going to the EEOC. The EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations only deals with appeals after the federal agency has had an opportunity to review the case. An Employee cannot file first with the EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations. The EEOC can dismiss a case for failing to file with the EEO office director first
  • File with the EEO Office Director within 30 days. A federal employee only has 30 days after he learns of the breach of his settlement agreement to notify the EEO office director that the agency is in breach of its agreement. Even if the employee only suspects that there has been a breach of the agreement, the employee should still file within 30 days. Otherwise, the EEOC will not be able to hear any appeals if the agency continues not to comply with its obligations under the settlement agreement.
  • Show how the agency breached its agreement. The EEOC is able to require the agency to live up to its commitment under the settlement agreement. However, the employee must show that the agency has actually failed to live up to its commitment. In Tommy’s case, he put two and two together and realized that when he applied for jobs within the VA in other locations, the hiring manager may have been relying on the documents that should have been removed from his personnel file. The problem for Tommy was that he could not prove based on his speculation that the agency had in fact failed to live up to the requirements under the agreement without evidence. He could have obtained this evidence by asking for his personnel file. The EEOC therefore could not conclude that the agency had breached its agreement with him, and dismissed the case.

This case shows shows how difficult it can be for employees to require federal agencies to comply with settlement agreements in EEO cases. The EEOC regulations require that employees jump through a number of procedural hoops and present legally sufficient evidence before the EEOC will act to require the agency to comply with the settlement agreement.

Having a lawyer on your side who is experienced in handling federal EEO matters greatly increases the likelihood that the EEOC will require the agency to comply with its obligations under settlement agreements. If you believe that a federal agency has breached its settlement agreement with you, you should act quickly to make sure that you meet the strict deadlines for filing with the agency and the EEOC.

The EEOC Process for Federal Employees (Graphic)

The EEOC process for federal employees can be, even at the best of times, confusing. This info-graphic lays out some of the major events and deadlines that employees face in the process.

The EEO process is divided into two phases

The first phase of the EEO process for federal employees  is filing with the Agency’s own EEO office. This initiates the process and is required in order to file a complaint with the EEOC or to file a discrimination case in federal court. This process ends when the employee files a formal complaint with the EEOC and the agency assigns an investigator who interview relevant witnesses and assembles relevant documents.

After receiving the Report of Investigation (ROI), the employee has the right to bring her case before an EEOC administrative judge. This process includes discovery and concludes when the administrative judge renders a decision, and the agency issues a final agency decision FAD). During this process, the employee goes through discovery to summary judgment, where the administrative judge decides whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant a hearing on the facts of the case. The case proceeds then on to a hearing and a decision by the administrative judge, which the agency can either adopt or reject in its Final Agency Decision.

After the issuance of the FAD, the employee can choose to appeal to the EEOC or filing in federal court, or both.

Download a PDF of this document:

Federal employee EEOC Process

Federal Employee Free Phone Consultation

Find a time to talk about your case with a lawyer, not an intake coordinator. 

Here’s what you should know:

  • This is completely free, no cost, no obligation on your part (Lawyers can’t expect payment without an agreement)
  • You get helpful information about your federal EEO case 
  • This is the start of the process to find an attorney to represent you