Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia

Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Navy photo

Navy Follows Through on Firing Employee After Failing for 4 Years to Accommodate Her Disability

The department is pressuring Dawn Dunphy to take a settlement, but she is promising to fight instead.

The Navy fired a civilian employee this week after a years-long struggle to accommodate her disability, citing her medical condition as the reason for her termination.

Government Executive profiled Dawn Dunphy in November, detailing her battle with the Navy, the manufacturer of the speech-assistance software she was promised when the department recruited and hired her, and the contractors that maintain the Navy Marine Corps Intranet platform upon which most Navy computers operate. In September, four years after hiring her, the Navy sent Dunphy a notice of proposed removal. The actual removal date was delayed several times, but Dunphy was given a letter cementing her firing on Tuesday.

“The purpose of this letter is to notify you that I have decided to remove you from your position as a financial management specialist at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Philadelphia Division (NSWCPD), for your inability to perform as a result of a medical condition,” Thomas Perotti, the head of Dunphy’s soon-to-be former office, wrote in her letter.

Dunphy suffers from a condition that drastically reduces the use of her hands and prevents her from typing. She used a speech recognition program called Dragon NaturallySpeaking during the Navy’s recruitment event, the same program she used to complete her coursework for her master’s degree in business administration. The department promised “reasonable accommodations” to allow Dunphy to perform her job, internal documents and emails showed, and the Dragon software was already pre-approved by the Defense Department’s Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP) to function on NMCI.

After two years of sitting with various information technology professionals, both internal and external, as well as her own management, to demonstrate the failures of the program on the NMCI network and repeated troubleshooting efforts, the Navy placed Dunphy on paid administrative leave in 2015. She returned to the office every three months to demonstrate to different levels of management that her promised “reasonable accommodation” still had not been delivered.

The Navy “invested significant time and effort” to accomodate Dunphy, Perotti wrote in his letter, which served as a decision on the initial proposed removal.

“Although the Americans with Disabilities Act provides a right to a reasonable accommodation, it does not provide a right to any specific request or preferred accommodation,” Perotti said. “At this stage, there are no other viable reasonable accommodations available to you.” The removal, he added, was consistent with other employees medically unable to perform their duties and is “the only remedy available that will promote the efficiency of the service.”

Dunphy is currently pursuing a case before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and considering other options available to her, such as bringing a wrongful termination case before the Merit Systems Protection Board or a whistleblower retaliation claim before the Office of Special Counsel. The Navy is pressuring her to take a lump sum payment through a settlement, she said, but she is not inclined to accept it.

“I can’t condemn everybody else” to the same fate, Dunphy said. “I don’t know what route I will go through but I am fighting. I will not give up.”

Dunphy entered the settlement conference last month without legal representation, as she feared no longer being able to make payments to her lawyer after her paychecks stop coming in. She was accompanied instead by her daughter, who was one year away from graduating from Penn State University with an aerospace engineering degree before she delayed her senior year due to her mother’s financial constraints. Dunphy’s daughter had a job lined up as an engineer at Lockheed Martin, but it is now in limbo as it was contingent upon her graduation.

As far as gaining legal representation, Dunphy said she is “at a loss.” She has reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, which expressed interest but only if it could pursue the case as a class action. Dunphy was in Washington, D.C., last week to meet with several lawmakers about potentially drafting a letter to support her, an idea to which she said they seemed receptive.

“I’m still running around in circles trying to figure out what to do,” Dunphy said.

Despite failing for four years, the Navy maintains that it will get Dragon to work on its network. The department just does not know when, Dunphy recalled the Navy telling the EEOC administrative judge. Between 2013, the year Dunphy was hired, and November 2017, CAP purchased 311 licenses for Dragon speech recognition software on the Navy’s behalf. It is unclear how many of those licenses went to employees working on NMCI machines, but Dunphy said one Navy IT employee told her more than 200 disabled workers were facing the same problem. CAP said it has no plans to stop purchasing Dragon licenses for the Navy.

EEOC has scheduled the final settlement conference for March 9, the same day Dunphy’s termination will officially take effect. She suspects the Navy will fail to meet her demands to resolve the problem rather than just pay her a lump sum and the case will instead play out over the course of the next few years.

For now, she is overwhelmed. On Thursday night, she said, she slept for the first time in a week.

Read the original story on Dunphy and the Navy’s struggle with accommodating the disabled here.