By Meghan Droste, April 10, 2019
Happy spring, everyone! As the weather turns nicer, at least in theory, my spring teaching schedule is picking up. I just finished teaching part of FELTG’s Absence, Leave Abuse & Medical Issues Week here in DC. The last day of the course focuses on medical documentation, including the confidentiality requirements and what happens when agencies fail to follow them.
The discussion of per se violations — when agencies are found liable for violations regardless of intent or excuse — and the resulting damages, is invariably an interesting one.
One thing I always remind my students is that although the damages awards are generally low in those cases, usually in the range of $1,000 to $2,500, there is a chance that they could be much higher depending on the circumstances.
The Commission’s relatively recent decision in Sanora S. v. Department of Health & Human Services, EEOC App. No. 0120171305 (Dec. 21, 2018), is an example of how per se violations can result in significant harm. In the underlying complaint, discussed in Zenia M. v. Department of Health & Human Services, EEOC App. No. 0120121845 (Dec. 18, 2015), the complainant alleged, in part, that the agency retaliated against her when an EEO Complaints Manager provided documents from her two pending EEO complaints to the Chief Executive Officer as part of an investigation into whether the complainant had violated the Privacy Act and HIPPA.
(Side note: If any of you work at the Commission, I implore you to use the same pseudonym for all the decisions regarding the same complainant. It will spare everyone a lot of confusion.)
The complainant also alleged retaliation when the agency accused her of violating the chain of command when she sent emails regarding her allegations of harassment and discrimination. The agency issued a Final Agency Decision (FAD) finding no discrimination or retaliation in any of the complainant’s allegations. In the Zenia M. decision, the Commission reversed with regard to the two allegations described above, finding them to be per se retaliatory, but affirmed the FAD with respect to the other allegations, and ordered the agency to conduct a supplemental investigation into the harm the complainant suffered as a result of the per se retaliation.
In its supplemental investigation and FAD, the agency awarded the complainant $1,500 in non-pecuniary compensatory damages and $50 in pecuniary damages. The complainant appealed, arguing that she was entitled to a higher award of non-pecuniary damages because of the significant harm she suffered as a result of the agency’s actions. As described in the Sanora S. decision, the complainant suffered from PTSD, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. In the supplemental investigation, she presented medical documentation, her own testimony, and statements from her sisters detailing the impact of the agency’s actions on her, including increased stress, and fear of further retaliation including losing her job. Her sisters’ statements described the complainant’s panic attacks, nightmares, and episodes of bed wetting.
The agency argued that these were all symptoms of pre-existing conditions and, as a result, could not be attributed to the per se retaliation.
In its decision, the Commission relied on the eggshell plaintiff theory, or “the principle that ‘a tortfeasor takes its victims as it finds them’” to find that the agency’s award of $1,500 was insufficient. Under this principle, an agency is only liable for the additional harm or aggravation of a pre-existing condition that its actions cause; this also means that it cannot escape liability by simply pointing to a pre-existing condition. After reviewing the significant harm outlined in the complainant’s evidence, the Commission increased the damages award to $20,000 — more than 13 times the amount in the agency’s FAD.
These decisions are an excellent illustration of the pitfalls of per se retaliation, and significant harm that can result. Be sure to also keep in mind that the eggshell plaintiff theory applies in other types of cases, so you should not discount potential liability based only on the employee’s prior health concerns. [email protected]