By Brian A Jackson /

Appeals Court Overturns Dismissal of EEOC Attorney’s Retaliation Claims

D.C. Circuit Court finds that a lower court improperly dismissed a lawsuit by an EEOC attorney who said the agency interfered with her pay and benefits and denied reasonable accommodation requests over her filing discrimination claims against federal agencies.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday gave the green light to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission attorney to proceed with a lawsuit alleging that the agency retaliated against her and denied requests for reasonable accommodations due to chronic medical conditions.

Circuit Court Judges Neomi Rao, Patricia Millett and Robert Wilkins overturned a decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissing Cassandra Menoken’s lawsuit, which alleged that, because she pursued discrimination complaints against several federal agencies, the EEOC created a hostile work environment, including meddling with her pay and benefits and improperly denying reasonable accommodation requests.

Menoken, who worked as an attorney at EEOC from 1982 until 2019, said the agency engaged in a “multi-year” campaign of retaliation for her complaints, ultimately culminating in her seeking treatment for “depression, acute stress, severe hypertension and ‘complex’ post-traumatic stress disorder.” She accused her manager of creating “anomalies” in her payroll account that ultimately jeopardized her access to health insurance.

Writing for the court, Rao said the district court was wrong to dismiss the retaliation complaints on the grounds that they occurred while Menoken was on paid leave, noting that existing court precedent “explicitly rejected” the idea that a hostile work environment cannot be implemented while an employee is out of the office.

“Here, Menoken alleged not only that [her manager] engaged in conduct that resulted in anomalies in her payroll account, but that [the agency] ignored Menoken’s attempts to communicate about the anomalies that resulted in the denial of compensation and the threatened loss of health insurance,” Rao wrote. “[An] employer’s deliberate attempts to affect an employee’s finances and access to health care strike us as precisely the type of conduct that ‘might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination.’”

The lower court also erred when it dismissed allegations that the EEOC violated the Rehabilitation Act by denying Menoken’s reasonable accommodation request related to the “physical and mental” injuries sustained due to the hostile work environment. The basis of this decision was the agency’s contention that Menoken asked for “indefinite leave,” which it supported with a document that suggested that she had asked for “six months or until such time as [her] discrimination complaints are adjudicated (whichever is longer).”

But Menoken said that she had suggested several other options that would satisfy her request, including a temporary reassignment to another position. The appeals court found that EEOC’s documentation did not sufficiently support their claims that the plaintiff only requested paid leave.

“On their face, these documents reflect only that at one point in the reasonable accommodation process Menoken proposed paid leave as one accommodation option,” Rao wrote. “She alleged, however, that she ‘suggested several accommodation options in 2012, and filed a declaration averring that she had also proposed temporary reassignment or an alternate appeals process as possible accommodations. In considering [the dismissed claims], we accept a plaintiff’s factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in a plaintiff’s favor.”

The court remanded the case back to district court so that it may proceed, although it noted that EEOC may raise new arguments in an effort to dismiss the case again.