EEOC Loses Case Involving Dismissal of Long-time Staffer Who Suffered a Breakdown

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has lost a claim in federal court involving its dismissal of a long-time EEOC staffer who suffered an apparent mental breakdown.

Ironically (and sadly), the EEOC is the federal agency charged with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In 2017, the EEOC terminated an EEOC mediator who, during the course of a mediation, “suddenly began to act erratically. Witnesses later testified that [the mediator] began using racial epithets and engaging in physical violence toward the parties in the mediation, mistreated his co-workers, and refused to follow orders from management officials.”

The EEOC Failed to Consider the Worker’s “Obvious” Medical Condition

The staffer’s union, American Federation of Government Employee (AFGE), Local 3599, filed a grievance and the case went to private arbitration.

After a two-day hearing and testimony by 11 witnesses, an arbitrator appointed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service found the worker had experienced “a major physical and/or mental breakdown.”  Otherwise, the arbitrator noted, the worker had “an unblemished 19-year record as a Federal employee.”

The arbitrator said the EEOC failed to consider the worker’s “obvious medical condition” when it dismissed him and lacked just cause for the dismissal. The arbitrator ordered the EEOC to reinstate the worker with back pay and benefits.

However, the arbitrator refused to require the EEOC to pay  the union’s attorney fees, prompting the union to file a petition for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

The EEOC initially argued the attorney fees were not warranted for two reasons: (1) “in the interest of justice” and (2) because the parties’ collective bargaining agreement provided the Arbitrator’s fees and expenses related be borne equally by both parties.

The three-judge panel said the EEOC “disclaimed” the second argument, which was “plainly invalid,” during the appeal. The court noted the referenced contract provision “does not provide for each party to be responsible for its own attorney fees.”

The Court said the arbitrator failed to articulate a  reason for denying the union’s request for attorney fees leaving the court “with no assurance that the arbitrator rejected that [invalid] argument. Because the EEOC invited the arbitrator to deny fees on that ground, the agency is not well situated to argue that the arbitrator must have denied fees on a valid ground, rather than on the invalid ground that the agency itself proposed.”

The court vacated the arbitrator’s award as to the attorney fee issue and remanded back to the arbitrator “to reconsider the issue of fees and to include a statement of reasons for whatever decision the arbitrator reaches on that issue.”

EEOC: Do As I Say, Not as I do?

As the EEOC notes on its own web site, the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against workers who have a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.

The case is AFGE Local 3599, Petitioner v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Respondent, No. 2018-1888 (March 29, 2019).