By Deborah Hopkins, September 12, 2022

Members of the FELTG Nation are likely familiar with EEO cases where agencies fail to accommodate a complainant’s disability, but there’s another ugly side of disability discrimination that sometimes arises – hostile work environment harassment based on the complainant’s disability. We saw this in a fairly recent EEOC case, Damon Q. v. DOD, EEOC Appeal No. 2020003388 (Aug. 9, 2021).

Imagine you have a visible physical disability, and a high-level supervisor mimics your disability and the way you do your job in front of a room full of your co-workers. This exact thing – and more – happened to a supply technician at DLA, a left-hand amputee who, among other things, alleged:

  • During a safety re-enactment meeting in front of the workgroup, the Director mimicked the complainant’s physical disability by “put[ting] his arm up with his elbow bent” and demonstrating the way the complainant performed the task, which humiliated and embarrassed him.
  • After the meeting, the complainant approached the Director to talk to him about his conduct during the meeting, and the Director responded in an intimidating manner.
  • While walking away from the Director because of his intimidating response and mannerisms, the Director walked behind Complainant talking aggressively about his physical disability.
  • A few weeks later the complainant received an email from the safety representative stating that the complainant chose not to come to the regularly scheduled meeting because he did not want to participate in management meetings. This was a misrepresentation of his request to not be required to interact with the Director who had mimicked his disability.

EEOC looked at the facts of this case and disagreed with the AJ, who granted summary judgment for the agency. Interestingly, though, the Commission said the material facts were not in dispute and summary judgment was appropriate – for the complainant. The Commission found the agency created a hostile work environment because the unwelcome conduct based on the complainant’s disability was sufficiently severe or pervasive:

“…[W]e note that in evaluating whether the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a hostile work environment, the harasser’s conduct should be evaluated from the objective viewpoint of a reasonable person in the victim’s circumstances. (citation omitted). In this case, we note that Complainant attested that he felt threatened, embarrassed, and humiliated by the Director’s impersonation of him with his impairment during the safety reenactment. Complainant maintained, moreover, that the Director was also aggressive towards him after he complained to the Director that the mimicking of his disability was offensive towards him. We note that employees observed that Complainant and the Director engaged in a “heated” conversation after the reenactment, and a Material Handler attested that he observed the Director getting closer and closer to Complainant to the point of Complainant putting his arm up between the two of them. As noted above, the Director did not dispute that he demonstrated the crate inspection as if he had no left hand to show that Complainant was not properly performing the task…

According to Complainant, he was so humiliated by the Director’s mimicking of his disability in criticizing his performance in front of employees that he communicated to the Deputy Director, among others, that he no longer wished to attend meetings wherein the Director would be present. Rather than immediately addressing Complainant’s request and concerns of a hostile work environment, the Agency generated CAC meeting minutes noting that Complainant did not want to attend the meeting because he did not want to meet with management. Complainant further received emails wherein he was accused of having a conflict with management. Complainant believed that the meeting minutes and the emails cast him in a negative light, as he only wanted to be away from the Director and did not have a conflict with management as a whole. Upon review, we determine that a reasonable person in Complainant’s circumstances would find that management’s actions were severe enough to create a hostile work environment based on disability… (Damon Q., above, p. 8-9).

The EEOC found the agency liable because the actions were committed by a director and the agency did not take prompt, effective corrective action. When handling disability cases, be careful not to stop at reasonable accommodation, but also be aware that harassment isn’t part of the equation. We’ll discuss in more detail during the virtual event EEOC Law Week, September 19-23.  [email protected]

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