Labor & Employment Law Daily EEOC attorney’s Title VII, Rehab Act claims against agency revived on appeal
Thursday, September 17, 2020

EEOC attorney’s Title VII, Rehab Act claims against agency revived on appeal

By Wayne D. Garris Jr., J.D.

The employee claimed she was subjected to “a multi-year pattern of harassment and hostility” from the anti-discrimination agency because she filed multiple complaints.

Reversing a district court’s order dismissing an EEOC attorney’s Title VII and Rehab Act claims, the D.C. Circuit held that the court below erred in relying on an accommodation request form to conclude that the attorney requested six months of paid leave as an accommodation and that her request was unreasonable. In her complaint, she alleged that she proposed several accommodation options, and at the motion to dismiss stage, her allegations must be taken as true. Further, the attorney could bring an interference claim under the Rehab Act as the statute explicitly states that interference with an employee’s rights under the Act is a violation. The court also reversed dismissal of her Title VII hostile work environment claim, holding that her supervisor’s refusal to respond to her questions about pay irregularities placed the attorney at risk of losing health insurance, which was severe enough to sustain her claim (Menoken v. Dhillon, September 15, 2020, Rao, N.).

The employee, who worked as an attorney for the EEOC from 1982 to 2019, alleged that the agency engaged “in a multi-year pattern of harassment and hostility” in retaliation for her filing several discrimination and retaliation claims against the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Social Security Administration, and the Department of Health and Human Services. She claimed the harassment caused her to suffer from depression, stress, hypertension, and PTSD. The employee requested a reasonable accommodation for her mental and physical conditions, which the agency denied.

Lawsuit. The employee filed suit alleging hostile work environment under Title VII and refusal to provide a reasonable accommodation, unlawful medical inquiries, violations of confidentiality requirements, and interference under the Rehab Act. The district court granted the EEOC’s motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim. The employee filed a motion for reconsideration of the Rehab Act claims, which the district court denied.

Hostile work environment. On appeal, the employee alleged that between 2002 and 2007, the EEOC and OPM retaliated against her and undermined her pending EEOC appeals. Further, she alleged that in 2013, there were several issues related to her compensation and benefits, which involved her supervisor and the EEOC’s HR director. While the appeals court agreed that the events that occurred between 2002 and 2007 were not sufficiently linked to support her hostile work environment claim, it disagreed with the lower court’s conclusion that the 2013 incidents regarding her compensation were not sufficiently severe or pervasive.

First, the district court incorrectly held that because the incidents took place while the employee was on leave, they could not support a hostile work environment claim. The D.C. Circuit has explicitly rejected a rule against considering incidents that occurred while an employee was physically out of the workplace. Further, the employee alleged that her supervisor and the HR director ignored her attempts to speak to them about the issues that resulted in the denial of compensation and risked the loss of health insurance. The court held that “an employer’s deliberate attempts to affect an employee’s finances and access to healthcare” were the type of conduct that would discourage a reasonable worker from raising a charge of discrimination. The dismissal of the retaliatory hostile work environment claim was vacated.

Reasonable accommodation. In its motion to dismiss, the EEOC provided a copy of the employee’s reasonable accommodation request form and her physician’s letter. Each document identified paid leave for six months, or until her pending complaints were resolved, as the most effective accommodation. Relying on these documents, the district court, finding that the employee was not a qualified individual because she was requesting to not perform the essential functions of her position and paid leave for an indefinite amount of time, dismissed her reasonable accommodation claim.

The appeals court held that the district court erred by treating the request form and letter as “definitive proof that the only accommodation [the employee] sought was ‘an uncertain and indefinite amount of paid leave.’” In her complaint, the employee alleged that she suggested several accommodations, with paid leave being only one of the options. At the motion to dismiss stage, the court is to take the plaintiff’s allegations as true. Thus, the district court erred in disregarding the employee’s allegations and relying solely on the employer’s documents to conclude that paid leave was the only accommodation the employee sought.

Rehab Act interference. In section (b) of the Rehab Act’s retaliation provision, the statute states, “It shall be unlawful to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any individual in the exercise or enjoyment of…any right granted or protected by this chapter.” At issue was whether the section allowed the employee to raise a separate interference claim under the Act or whether she could only bring a retaliation claim. The court concluded that a “straightforward reading” of the statute requires a finding that a separate interference claim can be raised. Section (b) would be rendered surplusage if it was just another prohibition on retaliation, despite being separate from the antiretaliation clause.

The parties disagreed on which standard should be used to analyze the interference claim, but the court ultimately declined to resolve that issue because the employee’s allegations stated a claim for interference under either standard. She alleged that the agency failed to engage in the interactive process, delayed processing her request, then tried to “extract legal concessions” by offering to grant her request in exchange for releasing her employment claims. The court concluded that these allegations were sufficient to sustain a claim of interference.

Medical inquiries and confidentiality. Lastly, the court affirmed dismissal of the employee’s medical inquiries and confidentiality claims under the Rehab Act. The district court dismissed both claims concluding that the employee failed to allege that the EEOC accessed her workers’ compensation file as part of an unlawful inquiry into her medical condition. The appeals court agreed. The only allegation that pertained to a medical inquiry was related to her reasonable accommodation request and the employee did not allege that the EEOC accessed her workers’ compensation file in relation to her request. Even if it did so, her claim might still fail because an employer may conduct inquiries into an employee’s ability to perform the duties of the position. Thus, dismissal of these two claims was affirmed.

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