Is the PHRC guilty of engaging in discriminatory behavior? Former Investigator for PHRC files a lawsuit alleging discrimination

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”) is tasked with the job of eliminating discrimination in the workplace. The mission of the PHRC is to “administer and enforce the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act through investigation, identification and elimination of unlawful discrimination and the promotion of equal opportunity for all persons.” But are employees of the PHRC also included under that mission?

In a recent case filed in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Cheryl Williams v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the Complaint alleges: (1) disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12203 (2009), (2) racial discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §2000e and (3) age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§621-623. Did the agency whose job is to eliminate discrimination engage in discrimination?

Ms. Williams was diagnosed with certain medical disabilities including Fibromyalgia, chronic pain and a Musculoskeletal injury sustained while working for the PHRC. Ms. Williams was diagnosed with a Musculoskeletal injury in 1999. However, due to the PHRC’s lack of accommodation, Ms. Williams developed Fibromyalgia in 2002. Ms. Williams’ disabilities mean that she is in constant pain throughout the day, making it difficult for her to sit for a long periods of time, stand for a long periods of time and walk extensively during the workday. The PHRC became aware of Ms. Williams’ disabilities in 1999. Ms. Williams had requested certain reasonable accommodations and those requests have been ongoing since 1999.

Ms. Williams required three different categories of accommodations. The first category included doctor recommendations, such as: a trackball mouse, voice-activated software, footstool, etc. The second category involves relocating Ms. Williams’ desk closer to the printer. The third category involved a height-adjustable desk that would allow Ms. Williams to work sitting down and standing up. The most important accommodation was the height-adjustable desk. Ms. Williams was not provided that accommodation. The PHRC did purchase a height-adjustable desk for Ms. Williams. However, when the PHRC relocated to the Pittsburgh Regional office, the desk was taken off Ms. Williams for unexplained reasons. Ms. Williams was expected to work in chronic pain. The PHRC refused to give her the height-adjustable desk although the desk was located at the Pittsburgh office where Ms. Williams worked. The ludicrous part is that non-disabled supervisors, instead of Ms. Williams, were using the desk. At one point, the desk was being used to house a fax machine in one of the supervisors’ offices. Ms. Williams had to walk past the desk everyday in chronic pain and see it being used by non-disabled supervisors to house a fax machine. The PHRC failed to accommodate Ms. Williams under the ADA. As a result, Ms. Williams’ disabilities became worse and she was forced to quit.

Ms. Williams was also discriminated against because of her race and subjected to a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII. In April 2011, Ms. Williams was physically assaulted by the former Assistant Chief Counsel, Ellen Surloff. Also in 2011, Ms. Williams was threatened by the (then-acting) Regional Director, George Simmons (“Mr. Simmons”). Mr. Simmons is a large, 6’ 3” man who walked up to Ms. Williams and said, “I’m not afraid of you. I’ll hit you.” In July of 2013, Ms. Williams actually overheard Adam Stalcynski, current Regional Director, speaking with Joe Retort, her immediate Supervisor, about harming Ms. Williams as an employee. What’s more outrageous is that the PHRC knew of Ms. Williams’ allegations since May 2013 and did nothing about it. The Commissioners of the PHRC knew of the discriminatory behavior occurring at the PHRC and did not address it. The PHRC clearly violated Title VII.

Ms. Williams was also the victim of age discrimination in violation of the ADEA. Ms. Williams was born on May 25, 1958 and was 55 when she quit. Ms. Williams was singled out for discriminatory treatment because she is an “older” employee who had seniority and higher wages. During Ms. Williams’ last couple of months at the PHRC, she indicated that older workers were being “forced out” and the PHRC was hiring younger workers with less experience. In fact, following Ms. Williams’ quit; a younger employee replaced her.

The PHRC is tasked with the job of eliminating discrimination but is now causing it. This behavior has ensued for years despite Ms. Williams’ numerous complaints and letters. Hypocrisy is the word that comes to mind when you think of the PHRC (an agency devoted to eliminating discrimination) actively engaging in discriminatory behavior.

This Article was originally posted on the network on September 30, 2014.