Legal Briefs: Science as religion

klunney@govexec.com

Every Friday on GovExec.com, Legal Briefs reviews cases that involve, or provide valuable lessons to, federal managers. We report on the decisions of a wide range of review panels, including the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and federal courts.

In April 1999, Paul LaViolette lost his tech job at the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office and was denied the opportunity to get rehired at a PTO job fair.

Soon after, he filed a complaint with Commerce, alleging that the agency discriminated against him based on his unconventional beliefs about cold fusion and other technologies. Cold fusion is a controversial scientific theory that says nuclear fusion reactions can occur at room temperature.

The agency dismissed LaViolette's claim, saying that his allegations of discrimination did not fall under protected equal employment opportunity activity. LaViolette then filed an appeal with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission arguing that "discrimination against a person on account of his beliefs is the essence of discrimination on the basis of religion."

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

The EEOC agreed with LaViolette, citing the Supreme Court case, Welsh v. United States, which stated an individual's beliefs are protected under Title VII if the belief espoused is sincerely held and has religious meaning to the individual.

The EEOC reversed the agency's decision and remanded the case.

Paul A. LaViolette v. William M. Daley, Secretary, Department of Commerce, EEOC (Appeal No. 01A01748), July 7, 2000

Misinterpretation

In 1994, the Social Security Administration took four disciplinary actions against Kathleen Atkins, who at that time had been with the agency for 17 years. SSA claimed three of the actions were due to Atkins' insubordination and discourtesy toward her supervisor.

The fourth disciplinary action-a 14 day suspension-was handed down after Atkins' argument with the agency's sign language interpreter. Atkins is deaf.

During the investigation of the incident with the interpreter, Atkins requested an outside interpreter, fearing that the agency-provided interpreter was biased. But SSA refused, requiring Atkins to use the interpreter involved in the altercation.

Atkins filed a grievance alleging the agency had discriminated against her on the basis of physical disability-deafness. The arbitrator sided with SSA, and Atkins appealed to the EEOC.

The EEOC found in favor of Atkins, reversing the arbitrator's decision, reasoning that the agency's refusal to provide the complainant with an outside interpreter failed to reasonably accommodate Atkins' disability.

Kathleen Atkins v. Kenneth S. Apfel, Commissioner, Social Security Administration, EEOC (Appeal No. 02970004), July 24, 2000

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