Potomac Legal Group Secures $300,000.00 Settlement for Federal Employee

Attorneys Natalie Koss and Jasmine Santos recently represented an Iranian American Assistant Director against a major federal government agency. They successfully secured a lucrative settlement with the federal employer after undergoing months of complex settlement negotiations and litigating the case in federal district court.

The Facts: Discrimination in Federal Employment

In this case, the Firm’s client, an Assistant Director of Instructional Systems Design and Learning Technologies (the “Assistant Director”), had been at the federal government agency since August of 2013. Previously, he gathered more than a decade of talent development experience. In his position, the Assistant Director focused on the development and utilization of instructional systems design, allocating staff resources, coordinating these resources in multiple modalities and media, utilizing e-learning, and maintaining these functions agency-wide. For nearly six years, the Assistant Director received high ratings on his performance reviews and gained numerous accolades. 

Unfortunately, matters grew more troublesome for the Assistant Director when a new white female supervisor (the “Supervisor”) joined the agency in April of 2019. The pressures began to build on the Assistant Director almost immediately, especially as he was the only Iranian American among the all-white leadership team. Although the Assistant Director began to feel pressured to quit, he nevertheless continued. 

Notwithstanding his persistence, the Supervisor began evaluating the Assistant Director negatively and criticizing his work style. The Supervisor was particularly focused on the Assistant Director’s Iranian ethnic background and made judgmental comments about the origin of his name, voice, and accent. The Supervisor would mimic the way he sounded and repeatedly corrected the Assistant Director on how he pronounced the Supervisor’s name. This deeply frustrated the Assistant Director since the Supervisor knew of his difficulties with the pronunciation due to his accent, along with the fact she never corrected other colleagues. 

Despite being marginalized at work, the Assistant Director was still told he would be on path for exceptional performance ratings. This result, however, did not come to fruition and instead only got worse over time after the Assistant Director attempted to voice his concerns to the Supervisor. 

By September of 2019, only five months after the Supervisor joined the federal agency, the Assistant Director’s leadership role began to be negatively impacted. The Supervisor discontinued many of the Assistant Director’s leadership initiatives he had been working on for several years. No other initiatives from members of the leadership team were discontinued. By December of 2019, the Assistant Director received his first performance review from the Supervisor. Despite the Assistant Director’s best efforts, he received his first negative statement in a performance review in his 18 years of working in federal service. 

Over the course of 2020, the adverse actions taken upon the Assistant Director both continued and worsened. He was excluded from decision-making processes, passed over for discussion in team meetings, removed from leadership-wide email communications, and excluded from relevant interviews. The Assistant Director was also deprived of professional development opportunities that other members of leadership received. The Assistant Director also received another negative performance review by the Supervisor at the end of the year. 

By the Summer of 2021, while the Assistant Director was on a scheduled vacation, the Supervisor inquired into the Assistant Director’s managerial performance skills with his subordinates. When he returned, the Assistant Director once again raised his concerns with the Supervisor and suggested they utilize a third-party mediator, but the Supervisor refused to comply. Shortly thereafter, the Assistant Director’s flex schedule was revoked without explanation. 

Left with no other alternatives, and his mental health negatively affected, the Assistant Director began seeking guidance through the internal agency channels. The Assistant Director formally filed a grievance for discrimination, and an internal investigation began. During this time, dozens of the Assistant Director’s colleagues, including the Supervisor, were formally interviewed about the alleged discriminatory acts. 

Almost immediately, things went from bad to worse for the Assistant Director. First, he was singled out and was immediately excluded from all future leadership meetings. Furthermore, one of the Assistant Director’s subordinates was transferred to work directly under the Supervisor and a formerly canceled project was reinstated but transferred to a different colleague. Finally, the Assistant Director was transferred to a non-managerial position. 

As the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) internal investigation was not completed within the 180-day deadline, the Assistant Director was provided with a Notice of Right to File a lawsuit. 

On behalf of their client, Ms. Koss and Ms. Santos filed a lawsuit with the District Court for the District of Columbia, alleging discrimination on the basis of national origin, sex, harassment/hostile work environment, and retaliation in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (“Title VII”).

National Origin Discrimination (Title VII)

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it unlawful for employers to discriminate against prospective and current employees based on, among others, national origin and sex throughout the employment process.

To establish a case of discrimination under Title VII, the complaining employee must show that they are in a protected group, that they experienced an adverse (or negative) employment action, and that this action was caused at least in part by discrimination. If the employee can show evidence of this, the burden of proof then shifts to the employer to show there was a legitimate and non-discriminatory reason for the adverse action.

Here, the Assistant Director was part of a protected class as he is an Iranian American. In several instances, the Assistant Director suffered adverse actions at the hands of his supervisor and management. The Assistant Director’s negative performance reviews impacted his ability to receive bonuses and promotions, as well as commensurate pay. Despite requests for neutral mediation, the Assistant Director was consistently ignored, and his chances for advancement in his field suffered greatly.

Harassment & Hostile Work Environment

Title VII also prohibits harassment. Harassment is considered unwelcome conduct based on a protected class, which includes national origin. Unwelcome conduct becomes harassment where being forced to endure the conduct becomes a condition of continued employment. Harassment also occurs when the conduct becomes severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive. 

Here, as mentioned above, the Assistant Director was a member of a protected class based on his national origin. In multiple instances, he was mocked for this due to an affectation of his nationality, namely his accent. His treatment at the hands of the Supervisor and management based on his ethnicity escalated to the point of severely affecting his mental health and overall ability to perform his job effectively.

Retaliation

Title VII prohibits retaliation for taking part in a protected action; meaning that employers are prohibited from punishing employees (both current and even prospective) for asserting their rights, as doing so is considered a protected activity. To establish retaliation, there must be close proximity in the time between the employee’s protected activity and the retaliatory action that follows.

Here, the Assistant Director engaged in a protected activity by voicing his concerns to his supervisor, by seeking third-party mediation, by engaging in the internal complaint and investigation process, and by exhausting his administrative remedies within the federal agency. The Supervisor’s and agency’s actions against the Assistant Director occurred shortly thereafter and in quick succession.

Settlement & Victory for a Federal Employee

In this matter, Ms. Koss, Ms. Santos, and their client underwent a months-long litigation process with the federal agency employer to come to an equitable resolution for the Assistant Director. After engaging in back-in-forth demands, undergoing a lengthy and extensive discovery process, and drafting dozens of complex litigation filings with the Court, the parties eventually came to an agreement resulting in a private settlement. In exchange, the Assistant Director agreed to the dismissal of his complaints and release of his legal claims.

Thanks to the Firm’s tireless work to the case, the federal agency employer agreed to the payment of $300,000.00 in total settlement, with $150,000.00 in attorney’s fees and costs, the continuation of the Assistant Director’s employment in a secure position, the redaction of certain disparaging portions in his former performance ratings, back pay, and approximately 200 hours of sick leave.

Natalie Koss, Jasmine Santos and the attorneys at Potomac Legal Group will work diligently to fight for employees dealing with any form of discrimination in the workplace. If you have experienced discrimination in the workplace, contact us to discuss your matter.