Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is named in the lawsuit.

Outgoing Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is named in the lawsuit. Cliff Owen/AP

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Park Service GS-14 Sues Interior Department for Gender Bias Against Females

Lawsuit against Secretary Zinke and Deputy Bernhardt seeks $400,000 for denied promotion.

A high-ranking chief ranger with 14-years at the National Park Service filed suit on Friday claiming discrimination against her because she is female after she was passed over for a promotion.

Michelle Schonzeit, a GS-14 level employee who is chief ranger at the Liberty Bell and Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia, is seeking $400,000 in the filing with U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. She and her attorneys alleged “rampant sexual discrimination and Prohibited Personnel Practices against female National Park Rangers,” as well as “disparate impact discrimination (on behalf of all female National Park Rangers), and disparate treatment discrimination (on behalf of the discrimination and retaliation she and her family have suffered),” the complaint said.

Schonzeit’s husband is preparing a separate complaint arguing that the Park Service’s decision in 2017 to select a man whom the plaintiffs portrayed as a less qualified candidate for a Washington-area job has forced the couple, and their child, to live in separate cities.

The suit named Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke as the defendant of record, acknowledging that he is soon to leave his post, as well as Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.  Bernhardt, a possible successor to Zinke, was “personally tasked with addressing the discrimination and harassment within the NPS, and Interior generally,” the lawsuit said. “He was on specific notice of the discrimination and retaliation against Chief Ranger Schonzeit, as multiple attempts were made to him, including communication with Defendant Bernhardt directly, to avoid the necessity of filing this suit.”

Zinke in October 2017 rolled out a policy cracking down on sexual harassment at the Park Service, as noted in the complaint. “If discrimination and retaliation can be perpetrated against an NPS Chief Ranger, it can be perpetrated against any female employee of the agency,” the complaint read. “Put simply, the #metoo movement has now entered the Interior Department.”

Schonzeit’s attorney, David Weber of Goodwin Weber PLC, told Government Executive that Schonzeit and her husband  “have suffered [harassment and reprisal] since filing their respective complaints.” He also pointed to a 2015 incident recounted in the complaint in which, after Schonzeit was denied a promotion from acting to permanent leader of Catoctin Mountain Park in Maryland, Camp David Superintendent Mel Poole reportedly told her, “I have hired women in the past, and I do not believe women should be in law enforcement leadership positions.”

The complaint also charged that Schonzeit’s privacy was violated when the Park Service disclosed “confidential information about her” Equal Opportunity Office complaint to her co-workers and her supervisory chain of command.

The last straw for Schonzeit came in 2017, when her hopes for landing the job of chief ranger for the National Capital region were dashed when the managers—among them then-regional director Robert Vogel—closed the hiring and reposted the job, eventually hiring Gettysburg battlefield Chief Ranger Jeremy Murphy, a GS-12. Vogel has been moved to Atlanta. 

The complaint stated that women at NPS are navigating the “complex maze of pre-promotion details, canceling and reposting job announcements and the interview process at statistically lower rates than their male counterparts. As a consequence, female employees are less likely to proceed through the selection processes and are less likely to be promoted.” 

Attorney Weber said a contributing factor is that women are "intentionally being shut out of developmental details" of the selection process, such as knowing in advance the Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities criteria in writing a resume or application, and don't as often as men have inside mentors.

In general, the complaint alleged problems with “the practice of interviewing applicants for promotions based on subjective impressions rather than objective measures (such as experience in urban law enforcement operations, protection of icon locations, or financial management skills over large park operations). The defendants’ interview process intentionally or unintentionally favors male (over female) applicants. The difference between the male and female promotion rate as park rangers is statistically significant on a nationwide basis.”

Schonzeit is seeking damages for “her loss and injury including, but not limited to, economic loss, embarrassment, humiliation, emotional pain and suffering, physical injuries, inconvenience, and other non-pecuniary losses and deprivation of her right to equal employment opportunities”

The Interior Department referred queries to the Justice Department, which declined to comment. The Park Service did not comment by late Friday afternoon.