Failing to Accommodate Disabilities is Discrimination

The road to unlawful disability discrimination is paved with “good intentions.” Many federal agency lawyers (and therefore everyone else listening to them) mistakenly believe that discrimination requires in every case proof of discriminatory intent. That means if management denies any discriminatory intent, there is no discrimination (absent other evidence). That also means that if you … Read more

Five Myths that Federal Managers Believe about Reasonable Accommodations

Many federal agency managers come to the reasonable accommodation discussion armed with incorrect suppositions about the requirements of the law. They think accommodations are optional, or that if they make a good faith effort to accommodate, that is all that is required. These myths prevent many federal employees from getting the accommodations they need. Managers … Read more

Poor Excuses – Federal Agencies Do Not Understand the ‘Undue Hardship’ Defense

Most federal agencies have difficulty dealing with reasonable accommodations because, well, they just don’t understand it. Many managers, HR, and EEO personnel are familiar with the concept of discrimination—at least insofar as they can avoid a charge of discrimination by having (and documenting) a “legitimate, non-discriminatory reason” for their actions. But this does not apply … Read more

Fake Essential Functions

I speak with many federal employees whose management has recently added “essential functions” to their job descriptions solely to avoid providing reasonable accommodations. This can amount to discrimination if the Agency denies a reasonable accommodation because of a “fake” essential function. Frequently these arise in telework situations. I call them fake here because they don’t … Read more

How Management (illegally) Fudges Essential Functions to Avoid Accommodations

Too often federal employees call me with issues about getting what are otherwise very reasonable disability accommodations from their supervisors. The problem is that federal agency managers are normally trained to treat all employees the same. That works for many situations, but not for reasonable accommodations. Under the ADA, treating everyone the same can actually … Read more

Delays in Reasonable Accommodations

Many federal employees have difficulty obtaining reasonable accommodations from their federal employers because of unnecessary delays. Because the issue is in management’s hands, employees face particular difficulties getting even simple accommodations approved. But avoiding unnecessary delays can be critical to providing accommodations and avoiding charges of unlawful discrimination. Management often ignores issues One common problem … 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

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. 

Effective ADA Accommodation: What are Federal Employees Entitled To?

Subway disabled sign with "Effective ADA Accommodations" over it

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires federal agencies as employers to provide effective ADA accommodations for its employees. The law requires agencies to provide employees with accommodations that will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position – this is the definition of an effective ADA accommodation. However, if the employee cannot perform the essential functions even with the accommodation, the agency is not required to provide that accommodation. In that case, there would be no effective ADA accommodation for that employee.  This can mean that a federal employee who produces sub-standard work while being accommodated can be denied that accommodation in the future. Employees are required to participate in the ADA interactive process with their employer in finding an accommodation that works. The EEOC cases below illustrate how this works in practice.

An effective accommodation must allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job

An effective ADA accommodation is one that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the position. This requires federal agencies to provide their employees with various alternatives, such as teleworking, assistive devices, and leave, if those accommodations would allow the employee to perform the core functions of the job successfully. The EEOC has stated:

An “effective” accommodation either removes a workplace barrier, thereby providing an individual with an equal opportunity to apply for a position, to perform the essential functions of a position, or to gain equal access to a benefit or privilege of employment.  EEOC’s Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship (revised October 17, 2002) at question 9.

An agency cannot ignore an accommodation that it does not want to provide if the accommodation is effective at enabling the employee to perform these essential functions.

In McCoy v. Department of Veterans Affairs, an education program manager in Utah was ordered to cease teleworking because the agency had determined that the overall teleworking program was not working. The employee requested a reasonable accommodation due to her multiple sclerosis (MS), which was unpredictable in its effects. This made it difficult or impossible for her to commute to work. Nevertheless, the agency failed to provide teleworking and labeled teleworking merely a ‘convenience.’ The EEOC, however, concluded that the agency failed to provide a reasonable accommodation. Teleworking was effective by allowing the employee to avoid commuting and continuing to work at home. The agency’s priority, bringing all teleworking employees back to work at the facility regardless of the reason, conflicted with the requirements of the ADA. An ADA accommodation that does not rise to the level of meeting the employee’s need is not effective. McCoy v. Department of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 01A20346 (May 12, 2003).

Employees who need an accommodation to work in the federal government are entitled to an accommodation that meets their needs and enables them to work. The ADA does not allow the agency to deny an employee an accommodation because it wants to apply a blanket policy to all its employees. When there is a conflict between an agency’s priorities and the employee’s need for an accommodation, the agency’s priority must give way to the accommodation.

“Effective” accommodation means that the employee is enabled to perform his job functions

A federal agency is not required to provide a reasonable accommodation where the employee is un able to perform his job at a satisfactory level. If the employee is failing to come to work on time or has attendance issues, the agency can view a request that could exacerbate these tendencies as ineffective if it impacts the employee’s work. In such a case, there is no effective ADA accommodation that allows the employee to

In Petition No. 0320150024, a patent attorney with OCD requested a reasonable accommodation of working at home via telework. Several managers testified, however, that the employee previously had issues with time and attendance while teleworking. The EEOC concluded that because the employee had prior difficulties that showed that he was unable to meet the basic functions of the job, the telework accommodation was not effective. The employee was not entitled to this accommodation. Petitioner v. Deborah Lee James, EEOC Petition No. 0320150024 (May 19, 2015).

Federal employees are entitled to a reasonable accommodation that will enable them to perform the essential functions of their position. If the employee would not be able to perform those functions with the accommodation, it is not effective. Agencies are not required to provide ineffective accommodations.

Performing the essential functions is a requirement even with an accommodation

The ADA does not require an agency to accommodate an employee if there is no possible “effective” accommodation—that is, where the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job. In Charlie Love v. Donohoe, the employee was a janitor with the U.S. Postal Service. The employee requested  permanent light duty and requested that other positions in his locale be found. Based on the evidence, however, the EEOC found that the employee was unable to perform the essential functions of his position because of the restrictions caused by his disability. Therefore, the EEOC concluded that the employee was not entitled to an ADA reasonable accommodation. Charlie Love v. Donohoe, EEOC Case No. Appeal No. 0120093794 (Dec. 9, 2011).

Employees who are seeking an accommodation need to be aware that if they cannot perform the essential functions of the job, there is no effective ADA accommodation. This is the reverse of what “effective” means—an accommodation that permits the employee to perform the essential functions of the job. In such a case, like in Charlie Love, the employee is not entitled to any ADA accommodations because there is no effective ADA accommodation.

The agency can choose among effective accommodations, not necessarily  the employee’s favored accommodation

An employee is entitled to an “effective” accommodation, but if there is more than one effective accommodation, the agency may choose which to provide. The Agency ultimately has the final say in what effective accommodation is provided:

It is the [EEOC’s] position that if more than one accommodation is effective, “the preference of the individual with a disability should be given primary consideration; however, the employer providing the accommodation has the ultimate discretion to choose between effective accommodations.” 29 C.F.R. § 1630.9

In Schulz v. Potter, a custodian suffered from sinusitis and allergies because of workplace dust. He requested that the agency provide a mechanical-filtered respirator. However, the agency only provided a dust mask. The EEOC concluded that the dust-mask was at least minimally effective, and therefore the custodian was not entitled to the accommodation of his choice. Schulz v. Potter, EEOC Appeal No. 0120073186 (Jan. 15, 2008).

In Glenda Wearre v. Panetta, an accounting technician requested to be moved away from certain smells and smokers in her workplace. The agency moved the employee once. When that location did not work, the agency offered numerous other locations. The employee rejected all of these, but never explained why they were not effective. The EEOC concluded that the employee was not entitled to the accommodation of her choice, so long as the accommodations offered were effective. The employee had rejected the accommodations without explanation. Hence, she could not demonstrate that the offered accommodation was not effective. Therefore, she was not entitled to further accommodation. Glenda Wearre v. Panetta, Appeal No. 0120100926 (Jan. 5, 2012).

Finding an effective accommodation can be a process, and managers often do not understand this

Employees are entitled to be accommodated. This often means in practice that an employee may have to try out different accommodations to find one that works, or the employee may have to explain why the accommodations offered by the Agency do not work for that employee.

Federal employers often do not understand these requirements. Supervisors rely on advice from Labor-Management Relations Specialists who may not be aware of all of the circumstances of an individual’s case. Managers can often ignore unseen but very real disabling issues for employees. The EEOC case law features many cases where supervisors ignored employees’ requests for reasonable accommodation because they thought all employees had to be treated the same. Knowing the right approach is critical to complying with the ADA.

Sexual Orientation Discrimination Covered by Title VII

Gay Pride Flag

Recent cases before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission enforce anti-discrimination rights for LGBTQ federal employees. For many years, federal employees were not protected from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Employees who were gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender faced discrimination in Federal employment. These employees had few protections under the law because they could not rely on state laws forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation.

More recently, however, federal agencies have been required to recognize that Title VII’s prohibition on”sex” discrimination includes a prohibition on discrimination based on an employee’s sexual orientation. In 2015, the EEOC decided in Baldwin v. Foxx, Appeal No. 0120133080 (EEOC July 15, 2015), that title VII did in fact prohibit sexual orientation discrimination. The EEOC is responsible for ensuring that federal agencies comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.

The EEOC relies on ‘sex stereotyping’ to recognize sexual orientation discrimination

Underlying the Baldwin decision is the 1989 supreme Court decision in Price Waterhouse v. Coopers. In that case, a six-justice majority concluded that title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination included both the physical sex of the person and that person’s gender. In that case, the  employee had been told that she would have to act more feminine around the office in order to be successful in her job. This kind of sex stereotyping was held to be unlawful under title VII.

Many of the Courts of Appeals that are underneath the Supreme Court have interpreted this as prohibiting discrimination based on characteristics of an individual’s gender. Moreover, in a 1998 case, the Supreme Court held that male-on-male discrimination could still be considered sex-based discrimination. More recently, the Seventh Circuit has held that “sex” discrimination also includes discrimination based on sexual orientation, in Hively v. Ivey Tech Community College, 853 F. 3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017).

The EEOC points to three theories to support sexual orientation discrimination coverage under Title VII

The EEOC relied on three different theories of discrimination to support its reasoning why sex discrimination included discrimination based on sexual orientation.

  • Comparative discrimination. Because any action taken based on an employee’s sexual orientation would necessarily refer to that employee’s sex (male or female), the EEOC concluded that sexual orientation was forbidden under title VII. The EEOC justified its decision by pointing out that if a (straight) male and (lesbian) female employees were each to post a picture of his and her wife, but only the female employee was punished, that would constitute a different treatment based solely on the employee’s sex. This kind of comparative analysis is frequently used in determining whether an employee is being harassed based on his or her sex.
  • Associational Discrimination. The EEOC also based its analysis of title VII on the prohibition against what is called “associational discrimination.” It is unlawful under title VII to discriminate against a person because that person associates with members of a different race, national origin, or the like. The same logic applies, according to the EEOC, to people who romantically associate themselves with members of their own sex.
  • Stereotype-based Discrimination. If an employer expects an employee to act in a way that conforms with a stereotype of that person’s gender, that is also discrimination. For example, employees who did not act ‘manly’ enough or ‘feminine’ enough to fit the employer’s expectations. Discriminating against a gay, lesbian, or transgender person almost always involves assumptions about what is masculine or feminine behavior. The EEOC concluded that taking action based on and employees failure to conform to this gender stereotypes constituted unlawful sex-based discrimination under Title VII.

Many employers may not be aware that sexual orientation discrimination is considered to be unlawful under Title VII. Federal employers are prohibited from taking employment actions based on the employees sexual orientation.

If you believe that you have been the victim of sexual orientation discrimination, whether at a federal agency or in any other kind of employment, you should contact your EEO counselor as soon as possible. And attorney can be helpful in analyzing the facts of your case and helping you to obtain the protections of the law that are your right.

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