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Plaintiffs’ attorney Daniel F. Goldstein says Social Security employees with disabilities were being promoted at ‘disproportionately and significantly’ lower levels. ‘There was no benign explanation for the differential,’ he says. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

EEOC judge approves $6.6M settlement for disabled Social Security workers

More than 570 current and former Social Security Administration employees with disabilities would receive a total of $6.6 million under an agreement a federal administrative law judge has preliminarily approved in Baltimore.

The deal will resolve a dispute over promotions and accommodations that goes back nearly a decade. The settlement agreement also calls on the SSA to pay $2.87 million in attorney’s fees and $400,000 in expenses.

As part of the settlement, the Woodlawn-based agency will create a “centralized reasonable-accommodations office,” which will have to sign off on denials of requests for accommodations. The office would be served by a committee consisting of a vocational rehabilitation specialist and a doctor and lawyer with expertise in determining reasonable accommodations.

The new process will “not allow line supervisors to deny requests for reasonable accommodations,” said Daniel F. Goldstein, an attorney for the class and Ronald Jantz, the initial complainant. “They can say yes, but only the centralized office can say no. This will ensure that people with disabilities are better able to perform their jobs.”

The administrative action began in August 2005, when Jantz, who is deaf, filed a complaint against the SSA with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC converted it to a class complaint in 2008.

The class includes current and former SSA employees who made the agency’s “best qualified list” for promotion on or after Aug. 22, 2003, but were denied advancement allegedly due to their “targeted disabilities” — deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, epilepsy, severe intellectual disability, psychiatric disability and dwarfism, under EEOC nomenclature.

Goldstein said disabled SSA employees were being promoted at “disproportionately and significantly” lower levels than workers without disabilities.

“There was no benign explanation for the differential,” he added.

Jantz, for example, “was unable to get any of the many, many, many promotions that he qualified for,” said Goldstein, of Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore.

The SSA, which employees about 11,000 people in Maryland and more than 60,000 nationwide, admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the settlement. The agreement also states that EEOC has made “no finding of discrimination” nor has the commission “expressed any view on the merits, validity, or accuracy of the claims.”

Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin said in statement that “the resolution of this longstanding dispute reaffirms our steadfast commitment to a talented diverse workforce. By ensuring that our employees have a path to career advancement, we strengthen our capacity to fulfill our mission and meet the needs of the public we serve.”

EEOC Administrative Law Judge David Norken granted preliminary approval of the agreement on Oct. 30. He has scheduled a final approval hearing for March 24 at the EEOC’s Baltimore office.

Under the agreement, the SSA’s centralized reasonable-accommodations office must respond within 45 days to a disabled employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation. Denials would have to be explained to the employee in writing, and the worker would be given the opportunity to request reconsideration.

The agreement also calls for SSA to train its managers and supervisors in handling an employee’s request for reasonable accommodations and provide all employees with sensitivity training specific to workers with disabilities.

“We think other federal agencies are going to be watching closely to see how they can do better,” Goldstein said of the settlement. “I hope that this is a model that other agencies will seize upon and try to emulate.”

New management

Goldstein credited Colvin’s arrival as SSA’s chief for the success of the settlement talks, saying that she recognized a resolution was in order.

Colvin has been serving as acting commissioner since Feb. 14, 2013, when she succeeded Michael J. Astrue upon the completion of his six-year term. President Barack Obama’s nomination of her on June 20, 2014, to be commissioner awaits Senate confirmation.

Brown, Goldstein & Levy is one of four law firms representing the class. The other firms are Berger & Motague P.C. in Philadelphia; Disability Rights Advocates in Berkeley, Calif.; and Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky Wotkyns LLP in San Francisco.

The settlement followed an EEOC auditor’s report in May, which lambasted the SSA’s process for handling discrimination claims of all kinds.

Although SSA had received 2,292 complaints of discrimination over the four-year period studied, it failed to find discrimination in any of those cases, the auditor’s report said.

The report found SSA failed to follow regulations in investigating claims of discrimination and manipulated case-completion rates. The report also said it appeared that managers may have tried to influence the results of investigations.

SSA disagreed with many of the EEOC’s findings, and issued a statement reiterating its commitment to equality of employment opportunity for all.

About Steve Lash

Steve Lash covers federal and Maryland appellate courts and the General Assembly’s judiciary committees for The Daily Record. He joined the newspaper in 2008 after spending nearly 20 years covering the U.S. Supreme Court and legal affairs for several publications, including the Houston Chronicle, Cox Newspapers, Chicago Daily Law Bulletin and West’s Legal News. Lash, a graduate of American University’s Washington College of Law, is a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and Maryland bars.