In the past few months, the national conversation about sexual harassment that began in Hollywood shifted focus to Capitol Hill. Congress has its own Office of Compliance (OOC) that is responsible for reviewing discrimination and harassment complaints of legislative employees. The OOC, however, has a reputation for being unfavorable to employees and has even been referred to as “the place where complaints go to die.”
In spite of the OOC’s reputation, Rani Rolston, a shareholder at our firm, has won several cases on behalf of legislative employees before the OOC that went to a hearing before administrative hearing officers. We sat down with Rani to discuss her experiences advocating for Congressional employees before the OOC.
What were your cases about?
Most recently, I represented an employee of Nigerian descent who was singled out because of his accent and complained about discrimination. The employee was eventually reassigned from a position working with people to one working only with software. They maintained that his position was redundant and he performed poorly, and denied that his accent had anything to do with his reassignment. The hearing officer found in favor of my client and his employer appealed. The initial decision was affirmed on appeal finding national origin discrimination and awarded our client $30,000 in compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs.
In another case, I represented an African American employee who was subjected to a hostile work environment based on his race. During several happy hours, coworkers referred to our client as ignorant and uneducated and ridiculed his speech and writing. The hearing officer found that this conduct was severe and pervasive enough to alter the conditions of his employment and undermine his authority as a supervisor, and awarded our client $50,000 in compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs. This decision was also appealed by the employer and the initial decision affirmed on appeal.
I handled a third case that involved disability discrimination. Our client was a Capitol tour guide and was responsible for showing tourists around the building. She injured her foot and requested to be reasonably accommodated during the work day which was denied. The hearing officer found that the denial was improper and our client was awarded $25,000 in compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and costs.
Who can file a complaint with the OOC?
The OOC oversees claims from about 30,000 legislative employees, including Congressional staff, the Office of the Architect of the Capital, the Capitol police, the Office of Congressional Accessibility Services, and the Congressional Budget Office, among others. Such employees who wish to file a discrimination or harassment claim must go through the OOC’s mandatory, multi-step dispute resolution process.
What is the OOC process like?
The first step is to file a written request for counseling within 180 days of the alleged violation. Formal counseling normally lasts about 30 days. An OOC-appointed counselor will discuss the alleged violation with the employee and explain the possible legal consequences.
The formal counseling period is followed by mediation, which must be requested in writing within 15 days of receiving notification of the completion of counseling. The mediator will then work with both parties to try to resolve the matter.
If the claim is not resolved through mediation, the employee can proceed with an administrative hearing or file a lawsuit in Federal district court. Within 90 days, an employee can file either an administrative complaint or a federal lawsuit, but not both.
What’s the difference between an administrative hearing and a Federal lawsuit?
An administrative hearing is held before a hearing officer assigned by the OOC. After mediation, the employee must file a formal written complaint with the OOC. The employing office has 15 days to respond to the complaint, and a hearing office will be appointed to decide the matter. The hearing officer may require the parties to exchange information and may issue subpoenas as needed. A hearing officer will usually hold a hearing within 60 days of filing a formal written complaint, and will issue a decision within 90 days of the hearing’s conclusion.
On the other hand, a Federal lawsuit would proceed under the normal rules of federal court. A Federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia can take much longer and can be more costly than an administrative complaint.
What’s the process for appeals?
An employee can request the OOC Board of Directors review the hearing officer’s decision on an administrative complaint within 30 days of the decision. The Board of Directors will hear both sides and issue a written decision, which could then be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
Have you settled any other cases before the OOC?
Yes, I had a disability case before the OOC that settled on the morning of the first day of the hearing. The OOC has reported that it paid out over $17 million for 264 settlements over the past 20 years.
If you are a federal employee who has experienced workplace harassment, contact Alan Lescht and Associates today. Call us at (202) 463-6036, email us, or visit our website. We offer strategic and results-driven legal services to federal government employees around the world.