By Deryn Sumner, July 19, 2017
When we think of accommodating employees with disabilities, we often think of it only in the context of what accommodations the employee needs to perform the essential functions of his or her job at work. However, when employees with disabilities file EEO complaints, it often reasonably follows that these individuals need accommodations to participate in the litigation of their EEO complaints. The EEOC’s Administrative Judge’s Handbook (available at https://www.eeoc.gov/federal/ajhandbook.cfm) notes that “[a] party, witness or representative appearing before the Commission may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation for a disability. The Administrative Judge may order the agency to provide the accommodation.” But what recourse does a complainant have when he or she is not provided an accommodation during litigation of a case?
The EEOC’s Office of Federal Operations considered such a situation in Davina W. v. Social Security Administration, EEOC Appeal No. 0120162615 (January 18, 2017). There, the complainant worked as an attorney for SSA in Atlanta, Georgia and had previously settled a prior EEO complaint in 2009 that allowed her to work at an alternate duty station on certain days and have a flexible start time due to her disability. This didn’t appear to improve the complainant’s work situation, as she subsequently filed two more EEO complaints. After the agency completed an investigation and the case was before an administrative judge, the agency sought to depose complainant.
The complainant requested that as a reasonable accommodation for her disability, the deposition begin in the afternoon, that she be granted frequent breaks, and given the late start time and need for frequent breaks, noted that the deposition could be conducted over two days. The complainant stated she needed these accommodations due to medication she took in the morning that took five hours to kick in and resulted in severe abdominal pain and retching and her need for frequent restroom breaks. According to the decision, the agency declined to start the deposition at a later time or conduct it over two days, and alleged that that the complainant refused to cooperate with the agency’s attempts to depose her.
The complainant filed an EEO complaint alleging that the agency failed to provide her an accommodation or engage in the interactive process with her regarding her deposition, and the agency discriminated against her when an agency official suggested that she consider disability retirement if she required a reasonable accommodation for her deposition.
The Commission found that these allegations should not have been considered separate complaints, but they should have been addressed by the presiding administrative judge in her case, noting its concern that the administrative judge “did not address Complainant’s clear request for an accommodation during her deposition.” The Commission noted that the administrative judge has a duty and obligation to accommodate parties and witnesses and remanded the complaint for a hearing.
I share the Commission’s concern that the administrative judge did not address the complainant’s clear request for accommodation. The complainant was not seeking to be excused from deposition entirely, but rather to have the deposition start late enough in the day and provide enough restroom breaks to accommodate her medical condition, which appears reasonable and would have met the agency’s goal of obtaining the complainant’s deposition testimony. Instead of being required to file a separate EEO complaint to address the issue, the administrative judge should have considered it as part of overseeing processing of her existing EEO complaints. Sumner@FELTG.com