Baltimore County must pay more than $780,000 to a former longtime county sanitarian who said she was forced into retirement when supervisors refused to accommodate her disability, a federal jury decided.
Dianne Van Rossum sued the county for alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, saying she was not allowed to move to another office when she had a severe reaction to chemical odors emanating from new paint and carpeting in the Jefferson Building, a county office space in Towson.
The jury returned the verdict this week in U.S. District Court. It awarded $530,053 for economic damages and $250,000 for pain and suffering.
"I hope this case just sends a message," said Van Rossum, who worked for the county's environmental department from 1980 to 2010. "The jury obviously agreed that my rights were violated."
The county plans to appeal the verdict, a spokeswoman said.
The case isn't the first time Baltimore County has been challenged over its treatment of workers with medical problems. In 2012, the county agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a lawsuit by the U.S. Department of Justice over workplace discrimination issues related to people's medical conditions.
For much of her career with the county, Van Rossum worked as a food plans review specialist, evaluating architectural plans for restaurants and inspecting the eateries before they opened.
According to her lawsuit, Van Rossum developed an illness from mold and harmful chemicals in the county courthouse. She experienced episodes of dizziness, headaches and joint pain, fatigue, stomach upset, and weakness in her limbs.
In the summer of 2009, her department was relocated to the fourth floor of Jefferson Building on Chesapeake Avenue. The building had been renovated, and the move made her symptoms worse.
Van Rossum asked to move to another floor of the building, a request she at first was granted. But the following year, Van Rossum said, a manager said she had to return to the fourth floor. She was re-assigned to the position of field inspector and, eventually, a manager said she had to work on the fourth floor or face discipline.
In April 2010, she was "forced into early retirement," Van Rossum claimed in the lawsuit. She was three months shy of qualifying for a full county pension.
At work, Van Rossum received positive performance reviews, the lawsuit states.
"I felt like there was no one within Baltimore County that I could turn to after being a good and loyal employee," said Van Rossum, 61, who now lives in South Carolina. "Baltimore County really needs to maintain their buildings and provide a healthy environment for their employees."
Matthew K. Handley, director of litigation for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said Van Rossum's request to change offices was "very modest."
"I think this is something [the county] could have avoided very early if they had accommodated her," Handley said. "It will hopefully send a message to employers that accommodating people with disabilities is not only the law, but good business."
The lawyers' committee, which was part of Van Rossum's legal team, represents people in civil rights cases dealing with employment, housing, public and accommodations.
This past July, another former county worker won a $400,000 verdict in a disability-discrimination case against the county. In that case, a laborer with the county highways department said he sprained his back in 2010 while shoveling asphalt. The worker said that after he recovered from the injury and returned to work, the county fired him after he could still do his job.
In the 2012 settlement, the federal government alleged that 10 employees and job applicants in the police and fire departments were required to have inappropriate and intrusive medical exams or were subjected to other forms of disability discrimination. The suit also alleged the county refused to hire two qualified applicants for EMT positions because they had diabetes.
An employer violates the Americans with Disabilities Act if it requires workers to undergo exams unrelated to their job duties.