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Judy Greenwald

EEOC may have to pay attorney fees in disability discrimination case

January 10, 2014 - 3:57pm

EEOC Disability Discrimination Case


A federal district court magistrate judge has ruled that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission may have to pay unspecified attorney fees in connection with the alleged destruction of evidence in a disability discrimination case.

The case arises from a complaint filed by the agency on behalf of Charlesetta Jennings, who charged that her former employer, Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P., a law firm, did not provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and subsequently discharged her from her position as a support services assistant in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Monday's ruling by the federal district court in Greensboro, N.C., in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice L.L.P.

According to a statement issued by the EEOC in January 2013, Ms. Jennings was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2008; her treatment included the removal of some lymph nodes, which resulted in physical impairment. She was terminated in 2011.

As part of its defense, Womble Carlyle said that Ms. Jennings had failed to reasonable efforts to find alternative employment, said the ruling.

According to the ruling, Ms. Jennings testified that while receiving unemployment benefits, she maintained a log of her attempts to seek employment but shredded it when the unemployment benefits were terminated. The EEOC said it took “reasonable steps” to ensure Ms. Jennings retained relevant documents, according to her ruling.

The ruling said, however, that “The EEOC has not explained the full context or exact content of its instructions to Jennings, has provided no contemporaneous documents regarding any such instructions, and has acknowledged that Jennings 'does not recall being advised to retain the records' and that she still professes ignorance about her obligation to preserve these materials.”

United States Magistrate Judge L. Patrick Auld ruled that while “the circumstances do not warrant” striking the EEOC's demand for back pay, the EEOC and/or Ms. Jennings should be ordered to pay the law firm “reasonable expenses, including reasonable attorneys' fees, incurred in attempting to conduct additional discovery regarding Jennings' mitigation of damages” and in bringing this motion.

Gerald L. Maatman Jr., a partner with law firm Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P., said the decision is unusual because typically such rulings “are against employers or against defendants,” not against the government and private party litigant.

This ruling says that when a lawsuit is filed on behalf of the government that involves individual employees, the government must make sure the employees are keeping all the data, or else it may be subject to charges of spoliation of evidence, said Mr. Maatman.

 



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