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Montgomery County urges justices to review fee award in disability bias case

Montgomery County is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to review and overturn an attorney’s fee award to a blind employee whom the county was found to have discriminated against but who was awarded no damages and who received reasonable job accommodations for her disability without a court order.

In papers filed with the justices last month, the county said the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wrongly held that Yasmin Reyazuddin was a “prevailing party” in her discrimination lawsuit and thus entitled to attorney’s fees under the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits disability-based discrimination against public-sector employees.

The 4th Circuit, in its controversial ruling, said Reyazuddin had “prevailed” because a jury found the county discriminated against the call center worker by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for her blindness. The county subsequently “capitulated” due to the lawsuit and provided accommodations without a court order to do so, the 4th Circuit added in its published 3-0 decision in February.

But the county, in its petition for Supreme Court review, said a party “prevails” under the law when she or he is awarded either damages or a court order of reasonable accommodations — and Reyazuddin received neither. Attorney’s fees may not be awarded to a plaintiff who has shown no financial loss and whose lawsuit served as a mere “catalyst” for the defendant providing accommodations, the county added.

“This (4th Circuit) decision should … not be allowed to stand because of the chilling effect it will have on defendants’ good-faith efforts to comply with the law to monitor and modify a plaintiff’s accommodation while litigation is pending,” wrote Associate Montgomery County Attorney Erin J. Ashbarry, the county’s counsel of record before the high court. “Defendants nationwide will be deterred from implementing accommodations or otherwise taking steps in good faith to comply with the law for fear of conceding the plaintiff’s prevailing-party status.”

Reyazuddin’s counsel at Brown Goldstein & Levy LLP will waive their right to respond to the county’s petition for Supreme Court review unless the justices request a response, Joseph Espo, a partner at the Baltimore law firm, said Friday.

“We don’t think there’s anything cert worthy in this case,” added Espo, referring to the high court’s grant of certiorari, or review. “She is the prevailing party.”

The justices have not stated when they will vote on the county’s request for review.

The case is docketed at the high court as Montgomery County, Md. v. Yasmin Reyazuddin, No. 21-299.

In 2016, a U.S. District Court jury in Greenbelt found the county violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide Reyazuddin computer software that would have allowed her to continue to work as an information specialist in a county call center.

The litigation arose after the county consolidated the Department of Health and Human Services call center, where Reyazuddin worked, into the Montgomery County 311 call center. The county declined to integrate the screen access software Reyazuddin had been using, which enabled her to access computer programs that converted information on a computer screen into synthesized speech or Braille.

The county argued that the $400,000 upgrade would impose an undue financial hardship on the county and transferred Reyazuddin to a position that paid the same but did not provide work she found as meaningful.

The jury ruled for Reyazuddin on her discrimination claim but awarded no damages.

She moved for a court order for accommodations. However, before that case went before a judge, the county upgraded the MC 311 call center to accommodate Reyazuddin.

Reyazuddin’s counsel moved for attorney’s fees, which U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow denied in September 2019, citing the jury’s award of no damages and the absence of a court order for accommodations.

But the 4th Circuit disagreed, saying Reyazuddin prevailed because she won on her discrimination claim.

“Reyazuddin isn’t a prevailing party because she catalyzed the county to change its behavior by filing a lawsuit; rather she’s a prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the county capitulated by transferring her to MC 311,” Judge Albert Diaz wrote for the 4th Circuit.

“Had the county transferred Reyazuddin to MC 311 before she proved that its refusal to do so amounted to discrimination, this would be a classic catalyst theory case” without a prevailing party entitled to attorney’s fees, added Diaz, who was joined by Judges Stephanie D. Thacker and Pamela A. Harris. “Likewise, had Reyazuddin sought only damages against the county, her failure to obtain any would mean she wasn’t a prevailing party. But it would be unjust to hold that Reyazuddin didn’t prevail simply because the county’s timely capitulation rendered unnecessary equitable relief that Reyazuddin was otherwise entitled to.”

The 4th Circuit had sent the case back to the district court to calculate the attorney’s fee award when the county petitioned the Supreme Court for its review.

The 4th Circuit rendered its decision in Yasmin Reyazuddin v. Montgomery County, Md., No. 19-2144.