Mark Van Scyoc/

Native American Energy Department Employee Wins Significant Civil Rights Settlement

Jody TallBear was awarded $200,000, the restoration of 100 hours of sick leave, and executive training.

A Native American official in the Energy Department’s diversity office reached a $200,000 settlement with the department last week over civil rights violations she experienced.

Jody TallBear, a career civil servant, is a member of the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma and is eligible for enrollment in the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. She filed a lawsuit against the department in January 2017 for violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act related to a hostile work environment and retaliation. This was after repeated attempts to raise concerns with department leaders over the presence of racialized images and slurs in the workplace and retaliation for her advocacy of Native American views. 

“It’s hard to be an adversarial litigation stance with your agency. It just doesn’t feel good,” TallBear told Government Executive. “At one time you’re part of the team, but then you also feel like you’re sometimes at odds with the team.” 

TallBear started at Energy as a visiting fellow and contractor in tribal/Native American engagement and energy policy. Senior Executives Association President Bill Valdez, who hired TallBear when he was at the department in 2010, said she was an “outstanding addition to the office.” In May 2011, TallBear became an attorney in the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity. In 2014 she started giving presentations to other agencies on Native American inclusion. The presentations included information about combating racial stereotypes, such as those associated with the Washington“Redskins” football team mascot. She gave the presentations in her official capacity until October 2015, when her new boss LaDoris “Dot” Harris, an Obama appointee, complained about the inclusion of mascots in her talks.     

TallBear’s colleagues were “openly dismissive of Native American sensitivities to Indian mascots and have not taken steps to include Native Americans in not only the diversity training, but also in the proactive goals to increase equal opportunity at DOE in its annual [diversity] report, said the lawsuit. For example, she was exposed to “Washington Redskins” images on posters in common areas and clothing employees wore at work, as well as the frequent use of the term “redskins” in her presence. As a result, she felt “unwelcomed, alienated, and disrespected in her workplace,” said the lawsuit.

TallBear repeatedly attempted to raise the concerns withEnergy’s senior management, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Office of Personnel Management from March 2013 to December 2014. She also continued to make her diversity presentations until November 2015. In October 2015, TallBear told her supervisor Harris that she accepted invitations from various agencies to speak in November during Native American Heritage Month, as she had done the previous year. 

According to the complaint, Harris said: “I don’t want ... my role as director at jeopardy because you went off speaking regarding controversial issues … This is no different than if I had one of our LGBT employees speaking regarding on a controversial issue … or an African American speaking regarding the confederate flag.” Shortly thereafter, Harris removed TallBear from her policy lead position, stripped her from a leadership role, excluded her from meetings and briefings, banned her from official speaking engagements and  precluded her from travel, according to the complaint. 

TallBear took about 150 hours of sick leave in 2015 for mental and emotional suffering as a result of the retaliation. She said she tried to seek out other career opportunities in the department between February 2016 and July 2016, but Harris denied her requests or directed others to do so. TallBear said the retaliation continued for the remainder of 2016, which prompted her to file a lawsuit in early 2017 with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. 

After a legal battle that lasted more than three years, TallBear reached a $200,000 settlement with Energy, which agreed to restore 100 hours of sick leave and pay for her to attend the Federal Executive Institute, an executive management training facility in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was represented by attorneys from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP.

Last September, TallBear was installed as Energy’s civil rights division chief. “It’s been difficult,” but things are “better now” that the case is settled. Harris is no longer at Energy. 

“I would hope that other people wouldn’t experience kind of the blatant retaliation that I went through,” TallBear told Government Executive. “If anything, I think in settling this case and having it be a significant amount of money that hopefully ... my agency is on notice and I would hope that other agencies are on notice.” 

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