EEOC: @StateDept Failed to Provide Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reason for Not Promoting Complainant

 

Via EEOC: Terrie M. v. Dep’t of State,  EEOC Appeal No. 2019002167 (Sept. 22, 2020).
Agency Failed to Provide Legitimate, Nondiscriminatory Reason for Not Promoting Complainant.
Complainant, a Consular Section Chief at a U.S. Embassy, alleged, among other things, that the Agency discriminated against her on the basis of sex when it failed to promote her.  The Commission found that Complainant established a prima facie case of sex discrimination, and the Agency failed to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its action.  Complainant was qualified for a promotion, as evidenced by her Employee Assessment Reviews, and responding management officials acknowledged that Complainant was eligible for the promotion.  Moreover, Complainant asserted that the prior curtailments of her overseas assignments due to her high-risk pregnancy impacted the ranking she received in the promotion process.  Therefore, Complainant had raised an inference that her sex was a factor in her non-selection for promotion.  The Commission found that the Agency failed to overcome Complainant’s prima facie case because the evidence was not sufficient to provide a specific, clear, and individualized explanation as to why Complainant was not selected for promotion.  While the Agency explained the general mechanics of the promotion process, it failed to provide an individualized explanation for Complainant’s specific situation.  The Agency was ordered, among other things, to retroactively promote Complainant, with appropriate back pay and benefits, and investigate her claim for damages.  Terrie M. v. Dep’t of State,  EEOC Appeal No. 2019002167 (Sept. 22, 2020).
Excerpt:

In the instant complaint, Complainant has alleged that because she is a woman who got pregnant  twice and had to curtail her assignments as a result, she was disadvantaged in the selection for promotion process. To prevail in a disparate treatment claim, Complainant must satisfy the three-part evidentiary scheme fashioned by the Supreme Court in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). Complainant must initially establish a prima facie case by demonstrating that she was subjected to an adverse employment action under circumstances that would support an inference of discrimination. Furnco Constr. Corp. v. Waters, 438 U.S. 567, 576 (1978). Proof of a prima facie case will vary depending on the facts of the particular case. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802 n.13. The burden then shifts to the Agency to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its actions. Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S. 248, 253 (1981). To ultimately prevail, Complainant must prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the Agency’s explanation is pretextual. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 120 S. Ct. 2097 (2000); St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 519 (1993). To establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination, a complainant must show that: (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she is qualified for her position; (3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) the circumstances give rise to an inference of discrimination.

Based on record evidence, we find that Complainant has established a prima facie case of sex discrimination. First, Complainant belongs to a protected group as she is female. Complainant is also qualified for promotion to the FSO-03 position. HDR1 also acknowledged that Complainant was eligible for the promotion; and the evidence shows that Complainant was a high-performing FSO as demonstrated by her EARs. Moreover, Complainant has asserted that she believes her prior curtailments of her assignments overseas due to her high-risk pregnancy impacted the ranking she received in the promotion process. Therefore, Complainant has raised an inference that her sex was a factor in her non-selection for promotion.3 Because Complainant established a prima facie case of sex discrimination, the Agency now has the burden of producing a legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for not selecting Complainant for promotion.

Here, DDHR1, corroborated by DDHR2, explained that Complainant was not selected for promotion because she had been mid-ranked by the Selection Board. To support this explanation, the record only includes the same generalized information about the rules governing the selection process that the Commission had previously found insufficient, and which resulted in the complaint being remanded for a supplemental investigation. The record does not include pertinent documentation reviewed by the Selection Board and information regarding comparators. Also missing from the record are comparative data related to Complainant’s protected class or affidavits from Selection Board members; and thestatement of the Agency’s reasons for mid-ranking Complainant that led to her consequent non-selection for promotion. Moreover, the supporting testimony provided by DDHR2 does not add relevance to the instant complaint because, as Complainant stated, DDHR2 had only been in her position since June 1, 2018, nearly four years after Complainant’s non-promotion incident. DDHR2 herself indicated that she had no personal knowledge about Complainant or her non-promotion. In fact, the extent of the Agency’s explanations for its actions is that promotion decisions are based only on the documentation in the candidates’ Official Performance Folder for the most recent five years and at grades FS-02 and above, on the security incident records. The two DDHRs also stated that PE staff does not have information related to, nor will they address, personal or assignment decisions of employees, and only from the material submitted by the employee to his/her eOPF could this information be known.

We find that the evidence presented by the Agency is not sufficient to provide a specific, clear, and individualized explanation as to why Complainant was not selected for promotion in 2014. The Agency explained the general mechanics of the promotion process but failed to provide an individualized explanation for Complainant’s specific situation. See, e.g., Koudry v. Dep’t of Educ., Request No. 0520100196 (Apr. 13, 2010) (discrimination found where agency merely explained the mechanics of selection process, provided list of candidates deemed best qualified, and summarized applications of selectee and complainant, but failed to provide statements from selecting officials explaining how complainant’s qualifications were evaluated compared to selectee’s qualifications). The record does not indicate how the Agency determined which 76 candidates were selected for promotion or why Complainant was not one of the 76. Merely indicating that the Selection Boards rely only on information in candidates’ eOPF for making promotion decisions is not enough. Moreover, we add that the record also does not identify how or why the 76 candidates selected for promotion in 2014 received their scores and rankings. Simply stating that candidates who are mid-ranked do not receive scores is inadequate.

Moreover, nothing in the record provides a basis for dispelling Complainant’s belief that the staff of HR/PE had access to her curtailment memo as well as access to her personnel files which contained information about her pregnancy and presumably communicated with post leadership about the curtailment. Neither did the Agency refute Complainant’s assertion that the Board may have been aware of her pregnancy because the panel works closely with HR on promotions; and that the Board was also aware of the gaps in her tours and the shortened lengths of her tours because that was reflected in her personnel and evaluation files. As the Agency never presented any testimony from the Board members who reviewed Complainant’s promotion materials, we are left with only Complainant’s unrebutted assertions.

We note DDHR2’s statements that the Board notes are only retained for one year after dismissal of the FSSB and, therefore, were no longer available. In that regard, because Complainant filed her EEO complaint within a year of her non-selection for promotion, those statements should have been made available to the Investigator, given there was an ongoing EEO complaint being processed on this selection. See EEOC regulations at 29 C.F.R. Section 1602.14 (requiring employers to retain “all personnel records relevant to the charge or action until final disposition”

ORDER (D0617)
The Agency is ordered to take the following remedial actions:
I. The Agency will promote Complainant to FS-03 retroactively to the date she would have been promoted in 2014 absent discrimination, within thirty (30) calendar of the date this decision is issued.5 II. The Agency shall pay Complainant back pay with interest from the date in 2014 when Complainant would have started in the FS-03 position. The Agency shall determine the appropriate amount of back pay, with interest, and other benefits due Complainant, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 1614.501, no later than sixty (60) calendar days after the date this decision was issued. The Agency will ensure that all tax consequences are taken into account. Complainant shall cooperate in the Agency’s efforts to compute the amount of back pay and benefits due and shall provide all relevant information requested by the Agency. If there is a dispute regarding the exact amount of back pay and/or benefits, the Agency shall issue a check to Complainant for theundisputed amount within sixty (60) calendar days of the date the Agency determines the amount it believes to be due. Complainant may petition for enforcement or clarification of the amount in dispute. The petition for clarification or enforcement must be filed with the Compliance Officer, at the address referenced in the statement entitled “Implementation of the Commission’s Decision.”
III. The Agency will conduct and complete a supplemental investigation on the issue of Complainant’s entitlement to compensatory damages and will afford her an opportunity to establish a causal relationship between the Agency’s discriminatory action and her pecuniary or non-pecuniary losses, if any.  ….

The order is accompanied by a “Posting Order” which required the State Department to post the EEOC Notice signed by agency representative in DOS Washington, DC offices – in both hard copy and electronic format within 30 calendar days of the decision dated September 22, 2020, and to remain in place for 60 consecutive days in “conspicuous places”.  Anyone saw this posting order anywhere in the obscure corners of the Intranet?
Having seen the State Department  and the federal government negotiate on claims for damages like this, we would not be surprised if the negotiations for damages would run on not just for weeks, but months, even years. The goal is not really to find an agreement — the government has lawyers with limitless hours billable to Uncle Sam — the goal appears to be to negotiate up to the point where the complainant is exhausted that he/she would take whatever deal the government offers. Someday, somebody should calculate the costs when the government drag on these negotiations, as opposed to expeditious settlement when it is found to be in the wrong.
Read in full below:

Click to access 2019002167.pdf

 

High Risk Pregnancy Overseas: State/MED’s SOP Took Precedence Over the FAM? No Shit, Sherlock!

— Domani Spero
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

The Foreign Affairs Manual says that it is the general policy of the Department of State “to  provide all medical program participants with the best medical care possible at post. In a situation where local medical facilities are inadequate to provide required services, travel to locations where such services can be obtained may be authorized.” (see 16 FAM 311).  Elsewhere on the same regs, the FAM says  that “a pregnant patient who is abroad under U.S. Government authorization is strongly encouraged to have her delivery in the United States. The patient may depart from post approximately 45 days prior to the expected date of delivery and is expected to return to post within 45 days after delivery, subject to medical clearance or approval.” (see 16 FAM 315.2 Travel for Obstetrical Care).

A grievance case involving a high risk pregnancy of a Foreign Service spouse was recently decided by the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB).  This is one case where you kind of want to bang your head on the wall. The FAM gets the last word in the Foreign Service, but in this case (and we don’t know how many more), the State Department  ditched the relevant citation on the Foreign Affairs Manual in favor of a longstanding practice on its Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Specifically, the Department’s Office of Medical Services (MED)  SOP. So basically, MED relied on its interpretation of the regulations contained on its SOP instead of the clear language included in the FAM.

No shit, Sherlock!

Excerpt below from FSGB Case No. 2014-007.

SUMMARY: During grievant’s tour in his spouse became pregnant. She had had five previous pregnancies, none of which resulted in a viable birth. The post medical team (FSMP) and the State Department Office of Medical Services (MED) both agreed that this was a very high-risk pregnancy and that the preferred option was that the spouse return to the U.S. as soon as possible for a special procedure and stay under the care of a single obstetrician specializing in high-risk care for the remainder of her pregnancy. Although MED authorized a 14-day medical evacuation for the procedure, it advised grievant that, under its longstanding practice, it could not authorize further medical evacuation per diem under 16 FAM 317.1(c) prior to the 24th week of gestation. MED instead directed grievant to seek the much lower Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA).

Grievant claimed that the regulation itself stated only that per diem for complicated obstetrical care could be provided for up to 180 days, and therefore permitted his spouse to receive such per diem beginning in approximately the 10th week of pregnancy, when she returned to the U.S. for treatment. He also claimed that he was entitled to have his airline ticket paid for by the agency as a non-medical attendant when he accompanied his wife back to the U.S., since her condition precluded her from carrying her own bags.

The Board concluded that the agency’s regulation was not ambiguous, and that any clarification meant to be provided by the agency’s longstanding practice was both plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the agency’s own regulations, and arbitrary and capricious. We, therefore, did not accord any deference to the agency’s interpretation of its regulations by virtue of this practice, and relied instead on the language of the regulation itself.

Here is the FAM section on Complicated obstetrical care:

16 FAM 317.1(c):  If the Medical Director or designee or the FSMP [Foreign Service Medical Provider] at post determines that there are medical complications necessitating early departure from post or delayed return to post, per diem at the rates described in 16 FAM 316.1, may be extended, as necessary, from 90 days for up to a total of 180 days.  

More from the Record of Proceeding:

When FSMP contacted MED in Washington, DC, they were given the response that MED does not medevac for obstetrical care until after the 24th week of gestation. The 24th week of gestation is when the medical world deems a fetus viable outside of the womb. Grievant claims both FSMP and the post’s Human Resources (HR) reviewed the FAM and other MED documents to determine how MED handles high risk pregnancies at a hardship post and could not find any reference that limited a high risk pregnancy to the 24 weeks claimed by MED.

Grievant claims he contacted the head of MED and asked for an explanation as to why MED was not following 16 FAM 317.1(c), which allowed for medevac for high risk pregnancies. M/MED/FP responded with the following in an e-mail dated August 27, 2013:

This issue of how early a woman can be medevac’d for delivery comes up regularly. So does the situation of cervical cerclage – up to 80,000 procedures are done in the U.S. per year. While not in the FAM, MED has a long standing internal SOP that the earliest we will medevac a mother for obstetrical delivery is at 24 weeks gestation. 

Grievant claims that his spouse’s pregnancy was high-risk enough to qualify for medical evacuation prior to the 24 weeks’ gestation. Grievant also argues that every medical professional in and in Washington, including MED staff, agreed. Grievant argues that MED’s justification for how they choose which pregnancy to deem OB-medevac-worthy for high risk is ambiguous. Grievant takes issue with MED imposing internal rules that are not published in the FAM. Grievant claims that the alternatives offered by MED were not in accordance with 16 FAM 317.1(c).

What was the official State Department position?

The agency asserts that grievant’s wife was medevac’d to Washington, DC, to receive obstetrical care. MED did not believe there were medical complications necessitating early departure from post or delayed return to post. Thus, the agency claims, 16 FAM 317.1(c) does not apply to her situation.

Did it not matter that the FSO’s wife “had had five previous pregnancies, none of which resulted in a viable birth?”  The Department also made the following argument:

The agency further argues that, in any event, although not compelled by law, the Department’s Office of Medical Services (MED) has a longstanding internal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that the earliest MED will authorize a medevac of a pregnant woman for delivery, even in the case of complicated pregnancies, is 24 weeks’ gestational age. This SOP, MED asserts, is based on the medical community’s widely accepted recognition that the gestational age for fetal viability is 24 weeks. 

Ugh!

The ROP states that MED personnel communicating with both grievant and the post FSMP repeatedly relied on the SOP that no medevac would be provided prior to the 24th week of pregnancy as the basis for their guidance. They did not cite grievant’s wife’s particular medical circumstances as the rationale for denying an earlier continuous medevac.

You might remember that the last time MED failed to use common sense, the State Department ended up as a target of a class action lawsuit.

Here is the Board’s view:

It is the Board’s view that 16 FAM 317.1(c) is not ambiguous. It provides for the Medical Director or designee or the FSMP at post to determine if there is a complication requiring early departure or a delayed return, and authorizes up to 180 days’ per diem when such a determination is made. The entire context of the provision is to define what benefits are provided when based upon medical needs, and the provision appears to reflect the individualized medical decision making required in the case of complicated obstetrical care. Although the preceding provision, 16 FAM 317.1(b),8 places a set 45-day limit for per diem both before and after an uncomplicated pregnancy and birth, that limit is also, by all appearances, based on medical analysis of normal pregnancies and deliveries, which lend themselves to such generalizations. Airlines do not allow pregnant women to travel less than 45 days before birth, because of the risks involved. 16 FAM 317.1(b) recognizes and incorporates that medical evaluation under the circumstances of a normal pregnancy. Although not stated explicitly in the record, we assume that the 45 days of per diem permitted after delivery also reflects a medical assessment of recovery times under normal circumstances, which, because they are normal, can be generalized.
[…]
In the Board’s view, the longstanding practice is also arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion. As stated by MED, the rationale for the 24-week practice is that a fetus is generally not considered viable before the 24th week of pregnancy. It is not based on, and does not take into consideration, whether the mother’s need for medical care can be provided safely at post prior to the 24th week, or whether the medical care needed by any fetus of less than 24 weeks to come to full term as a healthy baby can safely be provided at post. It is difficult to see any link at all between the rationale offered by State/MED with the recognition of medical needs established in the regulations.

It is the Board’s conclusion that 16 FAM 317.1(c) is not ambiguous, and that any clarification meant to be provided by the Department’s longstanding practice of requiring the 24-week waiting period in cases of complicated pregnancies is both plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the Department’s own regulations, and arbitrary and capricious. We, therefore, do not accord any deference to the Department’s interpretation of its regulations by virtue of this practice, and rely instead on the regulation itself.

To the extent that the agency is arguing that the SOP is freestanding and applies by its own terms, apart from 16 FAM 317.1(c), again, we conclude that the agency is in error. By the same analysis as outlined above, the SOP conflicts with the provision of the published regulations of the agency. An SOP may not take precedence over a regulation with which it is in conflict.

The Board’s conclusion, based on the record, is that this was a high-risk pregnancy, with risks to both the mother and the fetus, and that the necessary obstetrical care was in the U.S. Under these circumstances, medical evacuation per diem should have been authorized beginning upon the return of grievant’s wife to the U.S., and continuing for 180 days.

Doesn’t it makes you wonder how many high risk pregnant women on USG orders overseas were affected by this longstanding internal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?  If planning on getting pregnant overseas, read the redacted ROP below:

 

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