Historic Lawsuit Aims to Open State Department to Disabled Foreign Service Officers: Class Agent was a qualified candidate who passed rigorous exams and was denied employment solely on the basis of her medical condition.
October 5, 2010, Oakland - The United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has certified a class action brought on behalf of all disabled Foreign Service applicants against the U.S. State Department by San Francisco Bay Area attorney Bryan Schwartz. The Class Agent in the matter, Doering Meyer, is a woman with multiple sclerosis (MS) who qualified for a Foreign Service Officer position after a rigorous screening process – only to be denied employment because her multiple sclerosis automatically disqualified her, under the State Department guidelines challenged in the suit.
“I feel great today knowing we will be making a difference for others with disabilities. I am as happy today as I was angry when I was denied the career of my dreams without being evaluated as an individual, as required by the law,” said Doering Meyer upon hearing the news of the class certification decision. After being denied for years, Meyer ultimately joined the Foreign Service after a “waiver” process, with the help of Schwartz, her attorney. “I’ve always been inspired by leaders like Secretary Hillary Clinton who believes rights for the disabled were fundamental civil rights. I am hopeful she will now change this misguided policy,” Meyer added.
The September 30th decision, by Administrative Judge Mary Elizabeth Palmer of the EEOC’s Baltimore office, found that the Foreign Service’s “worldwide availability” hiring requirement is properly the subject of a class action. Under the “worldwide availability” requirement, a Foreign Service Officer candidate must be able to serve at any of the State Department’s approximately 270 foreign posts, without the need for any ongoing medical treatment. Even if a disabled worker can serve at 80% of the Foreign Service posts around the world without any treatment, or at 100% of the Foreign Service posts with reasonable accommodations for her disabilities, she is not eligible to be hired into the Foreign Service under the challenged policy, Judge Palmer’s decision found. For decades, thousands of disabled Americans have been denied entry into the Foreign Service and discouraged from even applying for such positions based on the way the “worldwide availability” rule has been enforced, according to Schwartz.
The ruling particularly questioned the State Department’s blanket assessment approach toward disabled applicants. The EEOC stated:
“No individualized assessment was done of [Meyer’s] impairment or how it would limit her ability to do the duties of the position(s) she sought in particular countries around the world. Rather, when the [State Department’s] Office of Medical Services determined (or perceived) that she had a permanent or long-lasting medical condition or record of such a condition, she was denied medical clearance. ”
The Rehabilitation Act (Rehab. Act), which is like the Americans with Disabilities Act and applies to all Federal employees and applicants for employment, requires that government agencies consider each person with a disability on his or her own merits and based on his or her own limitations (or lack thereof). The Rehab. Act requires the government to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities, where such accommodations could enable the applicants to perform the duties of a position without imposing an undue hardship on the government agency.
Indeed, the Rehab. Act calls upon the Federal government to be a model employer of disabled workers. Yet, in Meyer’s case, and those of dozens like her across the United States, the State Department simply disregarded these requirements, and categorically decided that, because Meyer was once diagnosed with MS, she could not be in the Foreign Service.
Prior to being denied from the Foreign Service, Doering Meyer, recently of St. Paul, Minnesota – whose MS had long been in remission – went through a two and a half year screening process, in which she passed challenging oral and written exams and was provided a conditional offer of appointment extended to less than 5% of those who apply. The offer was contingent on passing the security, suitability, and medical clearances – and, although Meyer also passed the security and suitability tests, she was denied a medical clearance based on her MS.
Amazingly, the State Department decided that because people with MS may be susceptible to complications in humid climates – though there was no evidence of such in Meyer’s own history – Meyer could not be posted anywhere worldwide. Eventually, after her attorney, Bryan Schwartz, intervened, Meyer was granted an exceptional waiver to be hired to the Foreign Service despite her medical history - the only person who received such a waiver that year. After nearly two years of additional delay, she was finally placed in a Foreign Service position.
“We hope through this suit that we will finally change this insidious State Department policy which for so long has closed the doors of opportunity to disabled Americans, so that the Foreign Service will truly be the face of all Americans around the globe,” said Attorney Bryan Schwartz. “The Obama Administration stands for the message that we should tell our children that they can be whatever they want to be when they grow up. Now, it is time for the State Department to help us to live up to that promise,” Schwartz added.
For more information about this case, Meyer, et al. v. Clinton (Department of State), please contact Bryan Schwartz: Bryan@BryanSchwartzLaw.com.