Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris, PLLC

A Washington, D.C. based law firm with a civil practice in employment law

Category: Discrimination (page 1 of 3)

Class Certification Granted in SSA Class Action

The EEOC Administrative Judge granted class certification in a case involving African-American males working at SSA Headquarters. The case covers the time period April 2003 to the present, and alleges that African-American males have been regularly disfavored in the employee awards process. For more information, please visit the webpage we have devoted to the case.

To discuss your own legal options and possible discrimination claims, contact KPWH for a free consultation.

Politico Reports on KPWH Client Being Forced From Her VA Job

Politico reported on the retaliation faced by KPWH client Allison Gill. As the report details, Ms. Gill was forced from her job at the Department of Veterans Affairs as a result of her podcasts regarding special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia. You can see the full article here.

For information about your rights and a free consultation, contact KPWH.

Legal Protections in the Workplace in the Covid-19 Pandemic

We have received many calls lately asking about the rights of employees who are fearful of returning to the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A patchwork of legal protections may apply in this situation, depending on individual circumstances.  Here are seven things to consider:

First, short-term protections may exist in some situations.  For example, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires some employers to provide up to ten days of paid sick leave to employees who test positive for the virus, or who need to care for family members exhibiting symptoms of the virus, or who need to care for a child under age 17 whose school or daycare is closed due to the virus.  (The Department of Labor has prepared a summary of these leave protections.)  If you are worried about returning to the workplace, these short-term protections (if applicable to you) can help you delay your return.

Second, if you have a medical problem that increases your health risk associated with the COVID-19 virus, you may be able to seek an accommodation pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The EEOC recently addressed this situation in the following “question and answer” format:

  1. What are an employer’s ADA obligations when an employee says that he has a disability that puts him at greater risk of severe illness if he contracts COVID-19, and therefore he asks for reasonable accommodation?
  2. The CDC has identified a number of medical conditions — including, for example, chronic lung disease and serious heart conditions — as potentially putting individuals at higher risk. Therefore, this is clearly a request for reasonable accommodation, meaning it is a request for a change in the workplace due to a medical condition. Because the ADA would not require an accommodation where the employee has no disability, the employer may verify that the employee does have a disability, as well as verifying that the accommodation is needed because the particular disability may put the individual at higher risk.

EEOC Covid-19 Webinar (Question 17).

Therefore, employees who have a medical problem increasing their health risk from COVID exposure (such as chronic lung disease and serious heart conditions) should consider requesting a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Possible accommodations include temporary leave, telework, and reassignment to vacant job position that allows for temporary leave or telework.  The Job Accommodation Network is a non-profit organization that provides helpful information to employees and employers regarding accommodations that may be appropriate.

Third, you may be able to obtain job protection pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), under limited circumstances.  On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Labor warns that “[l]eave taken by an employee for the purpose of avoiding exposure to the flu would not be protected under the FMLA.”  On the other hand, if you have an existing serious health condition, and your doctor believes that time away from work is needed for you due to your serious health condition, then leave under the FMLA may be a possibility worth exploring. (Please note that time-off under the FMLA is not necessarily paid time-off.)  Additional information about the FMLA is available on the webpage of the Department of Labor, including this “poster” with basic FMLA information.

Fourth, what about employees who do not have a physical malady, but who are extremely anxious about COVID exposure.  The general consensus at this time is that a person’s fear of catching or spreading the COVID virus, by itself, will not generate any legal protection.  But, at least in theory, an employee with severe anxiety regarding COVID exposure may be entitled to reasonable accommodation pursuant to the ADA and job protection under the FMLA.  For example, it is possible that some employees may have symptoms justifying a psychiatric diagnosis such as “Adjustment Disorder with Anxiety” (DSM-5, 309.24).  Indeed, medical researchers have confirmed the existence of extreme apprehension among some people regarding the COVID virus, potentially justifying the addition of a new specific “phobia” to DSM-5.

If you have a medical diagnosis due to anxiety, you may want to consider requesting an accommodation under the ADA, and/or seeking job-protection under the FMLA.  As noted above, the ADA and the FMLA have restrictions and exemptions that may exclude you from the scope of legal coverage.  Also, it is important to remember that the employer may require medical documentation to verify the basis for any request for accommodation or FMLA protection.

Fifth, employers may be willing to consider other options to delay the return of a fearful employee.  How about requesting a temporary transfer (or reassignment) to a position in which telework is allowed?  Or perhaps a temporary leave of absence may be possible, if no other options are available.  From the perspective of many employees, these options, while not ideal, are far better than quitting the job or retiring prematurely.

Sixth, OSHA generally requires employers to provide a safe workplace.  You can ask your employer to make your workplace as safe as possible before your return.  You may be able to increase your impact if you work together with co-workers on a request such as this.  If you decide to file a complaint under OSHA, the U.S. Department of Labor has authority to investigate the situation, and can impose fines on the employer for non-compliance.

Seventh, some states and cities may have adopted legal protections that are broader than the federal laws described above.  So be sure to check your local laws before making a decision to quit your job or retire prematurely due to fear of the COVID virus.

To learn more about your options, please contact Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris for a free consultation.

KPWH Attorney Cathy Harris Interviewed about Mental Health and the Legal System

KPWH Attorney Cathy Harris was interviewed on the subject of mental health and the legal system. Ms. Harris discussed the strain that sexual harassment places on victims, whether in the workplace or on a college campus. You can watch the interview with Jennifer Mann, LCSW by clicking here.

If you have been a victim of sexual harassment, please consider contacting KPWH for a free consultation to discuss your legal options.

Proving a claim for compensatory damages at the EEOC

Proving you were subjected to discrimination or retaliation is only the first step in obtaining relief. Once you have proven your case, it is critical to present evidence of your non-pecuniary damages for your mental pain and suffering. Non-pecuniary compensatory damages are one of the main ways that the EEOC can compensate you for an agency’s discriminatory actions. While having a doctor or other expert testify about your damages can be helpful, it is not necessary. The EEOC has stated that it focuses on three main factors in determining an award of non-pecuniary compensatory damages: (1) duration of harm; (2) extent of harm; and (3) consistency with amounts awarded in similar cases.

With respect to the duration of the harm, the focus is on the length of time that a complainant suffered from the harm, and not the duration of an agency’s discriminatory or retaliatory actions. The EEOC has explicitly noted that a complainant who has suffered from severe depression for one year has obviously endured more damage than a complainant who has suffered severe depression for two months. EEOC Notice No. N915.002 (July 14, 1992). Indeed, if you have subjected to a discriminatory action, for example sexual harassment, the impact of that will likely last long after the sexual harassment has ceased. In evaluating a claim for compensatory damages, the EEOC looks at the length of the period that a complaint has suffered and/or is likely to continue suffering harm as a result of an agency’s discriminatory actions. A doctor’s prognosis that the harm is likely to a certain amount of time into the future can be considered as evidence of the ongoing harm. It is also helpful to establish the time periods you have experienced different symptoms as a result of the discrimination or retaliation as not all symptoms are experienced for the same duration.

The severity or extent of the harm suffered by a complainant also impacts the award of compensatory damages. The EEOC has explained that the extent, nature, and severity of harm must be considered when determining an award for non-pecuniary damages. See Glockner v. Dep’t of Veterans Aff., EEOC No. 07A30105 (Sept. 23, 2004). EEOC cases explore how severe the harm was, and whether the harm was persistent and long-lasting, or transitory or intermittent. As the EEOC’s “Enforcement Guidance” puts it, when determining extent of harm, “consider, for example, whether the harm consisted of occasional sleeplessness, or a nervous breakdown resulting in years of psychotherapy.” This factor focuses on the individual symptoms experienced and the severity of each of those symptoms.

A diagnosis of anxiety or depression or other similar condition, or a exacerbation of a pre-existing diagnosis, would support an award of damages. But with or without a medical diagnosis, other types of harm also support an award of compensatory damages. Frequently observed symptoms of stress and/or anxiety in these types of cases are stress related physical ailments (such as headaches or stomach ailments), weight gain/loss, shortened tempers, frequent tearfulness or crying, panic attacks, distancing oneself from friends and family, sleeplessness, nightmares, and decreased energy. The details of how often you experience such symptoms or how severe the symptoms are can also impact an award. Testimony by friends and family about the observable changes in behavior can bolster a complainant’s testimony and further support an award for damages.

KPWH’s attorneys are experienced at developing cases in support of compensatory damages and helping you articulate the full extent of harm you have experienced as a result of discrimination, retaliation, and/or harassment. For a free consultation about your case, please contact us.

COVID-19 and telework as an accommodation: is this narrow legal right applicable to you?

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the general workplace trend toward greater use of telework (also known as telecommuting, work from home, tele-work, or remote working).  After the expiration of social distancing mandates, some employers may choose to extend the availability of telecommuting for their workers.  After all, there are many valid business reasons for employers to expand telework as an option.  But workers need to be aware that telecommuting is not a legal right, except in very limited circumstances.

In the field of employment law, it always a good idea to remember that worker rights are limited.  Employers are very much aware of this fact.  The bottom line is this: if an employer does not want to provide telework as an option, then the law generally supports the employer’s decision.

But there may be a legal right to telework if an employee with a disability needs telework as a reasonable accommodation.  As explained by the EEOC, “Changing the location where work is performed may fall under the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement of modifying workplace policies, even if the employer does not allow other employees to telework.”  (EEOC Guidance, “Work at Home/Telework as a Reasonable Accommodation,” Feb. 3, 2003.)

But what about requesting telework as an accommodation in connection with COVID-19?  If an employee has a documented medical condition making the employee particularly susceptible to infection, and if the job in question can be successfully performed remotely, many employers are likely to provide telework as a temporary accommodation during the pandemic, especially if the request is supported by a note from the employee’s doctor.  There are likely to be other medical situations where telework provides a reasonable accommodation during the pandemic.

Telework as a reasonable accommodation is well established legally, but not all employers will quickly agree to such a request.  For example, the employer may express doubt that the employee has a disability.  Or the employer may claim that the essential functions of job in question cannot be performed remotely.  And it is very common for employers to require medical documentation to support a requested disability accommodation.

Workers with a medical issue may want to explore with their doctor and their employer the possibility of telework as an accommodation.  An additional resource for employees and employers is the Job Accommodation Network (JAN), which provides free consultations to assist with accommodation issues.  JAN provides a specific webpage with discussion of telework issues.

For a free consultation to discuss whether you may be eligible to use telework as a reasonable accommodation, contact us.

EEOC Issues Decision in SSA Class Action

The EEOC issued an appellate decision in the Jefferson v. SSA Class Action. Find out more about the decision by clicking here.

KPWH Successfully Resolves Transgender Claim Against DC Restaurant

Kator, Parks, Weiser & Harris is proud to announce that Cathy Harris and David Hart represented Charlotte Clymer in the just resolution of her charge of discrimination regarding an incident at a DC-based restaurant.  The District of Columbia is one of only a few jurisdictions that protect transgender persons in public accommodations.  This matter demonstrates not only the strength of the District’s protections, but also the need for further legal reforms to protect gender minorities.

More information about this resolution and the parties’ joint statement is available here.

KPWH Files Claim Against Restaurant for Harassing Transgender Woman

KPWH is proud to represent Charlotte Clymer in her civil rights claim against Cuba Libre Restaurant. She was illegally harassed when told to show her ID before using the restroom.

See media coverage of the matter by clicking here.

NY Times Notes KPWH Questions about DOJ Sexual Harassment Policy

A May 4, 2018 article published by The New York Times about new sexual harassment guidelines issued by the Department of Justice quotes KPWH co-manager Cathy Harris, who questions the DOJ policy. Ms. Harris stated to the Times:

“The question this raises is who does the Department of Justice prioritize?” Ms. Harris said. “Right now, they’re worried about being sued by harassers. They should be worried about being sued by the victims whose claims are ignored. That will be much more damaging to the department’s reputation.”

Read the entire NY Times article here.

Contact KPWH to discuss your possible legal claims.

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