As we often talk about in training sessions, no matter how unlikely a finding of discrimination looks when an agency representative first reviews a case file, it is essential to thoroughly assess what the liability for damages could be. Key witnesses may leave federal service and decline to come back to present the agency’s legitimate non-discriminatory reasons, or they suddenly change their stories putting credibility in question, or something happens with the case processing that opens the door to sanctions, including default judgment.
In our practice representing federal employees and agencies, one area where we often see missteps from employers involves employee medical documentation. Employers tend to make errors in three key areas:
The EEOC has signaled its focus on eradicating workplace harassment through the creation of the Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace, which reconvened in June 2018, and the issuance of recent decisions finding agencies subjected complainants to harassment. One such recent case, Sallie M. v. USPS, 118 LRP 47676 (10/16/18), was the subject of spirited discussion at the FDR Training last month. It is a great illustration of what agencies need to do in order to establish an affirmative defense to claims of harassment, or in this case, what not to do.
As attorneys who represent both agencies and employees before the EEOC, MSPB, and other administrative forums, we understand that not all complaints filed by employees have merit and may not pose a litigation risk to agencies. However, many cases do have merit. Also, sanctions issued by an administrative judge or the Office of Federal Operations can quickly turn a case from “no way we can lose,” to “this is going to cost us how much?!?”
Those of us who have been practicing before the EEOC for many years remember when the Commission turned its attention to agencies that failed to complete investigations within the 180-day regulatory timeframe and issued default judgments in the Cox and Royal cases. Key in these decisions was the idea that failing to timely investigate these claims undermined the integrity of the EEO process. In 2018, the Commission again turned its focus towards upholding the integrity of the EEO process by issuing sanctions where agencies improperly interfered with EEO investigations by representing and advising responsible management officials.
Many federal workplaces encourage the use of telework for all employees, regardless of whether they have a disability or medical condition. And some federal workplaces actively discourage the use of telework, for reasons of confidentiality, national security, or simply managerial preference. We’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth in recent years on telework. Although once actively discouraged, workplaces in the private and federal sector moved towards encouraging remote work to reduce commuting time for employees and to save on office space.