WASHINGTON— American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1923 is pleased to report that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has agreed to settle Friends v. Astrue (D.D.C. 06-1762) for $200,000 plus specified attorney fees.
Alli Friends was a profoundly deaf woman whom the agency hired as a claims representative in the belief that she could successfully rely on lip-reading to carry out claimant interviews. When it became clear that lip-reading under these conditions could not work well enough (e.g., one cannot lip-read a person with a mustache or a person who tends to cover his or her mouth with a hand when speaking), Ms. Friends asked for an accommodation—either an ASL interpreter for claimant interviews, or reassignment to interviewing primarily deaf claimants, or some other appropriate reassignment.
In addition, AFGE alleged that for a variety of reasons, Ms. Friends had not been given the same training and mentoring that all new claims representatives are supposed to get, so she also asked for additional training and mentoring.
The request for an ASL interpreter was denied by SSA’s Office of Disability Services on the grounds that SSA has an unwritten policy against ever providing interpreters to allow deaf staff to communicate with members of the general public. (In contrast, interpreters are provided so deaf members of the public can communicate with non-deaf SSA staff.) It is clear that management had no interest in giving Ms. Friends a fair chance to succeed in her job.
Ms. Friends pursued an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint. The case moved to federal court a week before the scheduled hearing before an EEOC judge, when it was discovered that the employing agency, rather than the EEOC, is responsible for providing accommodations for deaf litigants, and that SSA had no intention of providing court-certified interpreters.
After cross-motions for summary judgment were denied, discovery completed, and a trial date set, there were serious settlement discussions, including mediation by Magistrate Judge John Facciola.
Despite the sizeable payment to Ms. Friends, there is no evidence that SSA has learned its lesson. The policy against hiring and promoting deaf people who require an accommodation to deal with members of the public remains intact.
The union, although happy with the outcome of Ms. Friends’ individual case, will continue to fight for the rights of all people, including those with special needs, to receive a fair chance at successful employment at SSA.