A federal judge has approved a nearly $10 million settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed nearly a decade ago by a group of disabled workers against the Social Security Administration.
The lawsuit, filed by Ronald Jantz, a deaf employee, alleged that the federal agency discriminates against workers with disabilities by denying or limiting promotions.
The agency is headquartered in Woodlawn and employs 11,000 people in Maryland.
The Sept. 29 settlement was given preliminary approval Oct. 30 by an administrative law judge for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC did not issue a finding of discrimination against the 60,000-person federal agency, one of the largest federal employers of workers with disabilities.
The agreement will lead to "sweeping improvements" to policies and processes that can affect careers of disabled workers at Social Security, attorneys for the plaintiffs said in an announcement Friday.
"The problem with government employees with disabilities not getting promotions when they're qualified is endemic in the federal government elsewhere, too," said Daniel Goldstein, a partner with Brown Goldstein & Levy in Baltimore, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs. "This settlement is a model for how to address these issues. We think it's going to be a model for other agencies and make a real difference."
The $9.98 million in compensation includes $6.6 million in claims to be paid to eligible class members; the rest goes to legal and administrative costs. The plaintiffs' attorneys know of at least 571 current or former employees since 2003 who have applied for promotions, made a government "best qualified" list, but did not get promotions, Goldstein said.
The lawsuit represents current and former Social Security workers with "targeted disabilities" who had applied for a promotion on or after Aug. 23, 2003, and made a "best qualified" list without being chosen one or more times. Specific disabilities include deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, epilepsy, or intellectual or psychiatric disabilities. The settlement covers employees over an 11-year period that ends with the settlement date.
"SSA was willing to work with us to settle this case that has been pending for many years," said Shanon J. Carson, an attorney with Berger & Montague who represents Jantz and other class members. "SSA has agreed to implement extensive changes to its policies and procedures that are intended to transform the way that federal agencies handle reasonable accommodations and career training and development."
Carson added that many members of the class will be able to benefit from the changes during their tenure at the agency. As part of the settlement, a new centralized Social Security office staffed by a team of specialists will handle requests for special accommodations that might have been turned down by an employee's manager.
"The resolution of this long-standing dispute reaffirms our steadfast commitment to a talented, diverse workforce," said acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn Colvin in a statement. "By ensuring that our employees have a path to career advancement, we strengthen our capacity to fulfill our mission and meet the needs of the public we serve."
Jantz, a management analyst at Social Security in Woodlawn who is now retired, had worked for the agency for more than two decades when the case was cleared to move forward in 2010. He had repeatedly made the best-qualified list when applying numerous times for promotions but had never been promoted during his career.
Jantz had said he hoped the case would prompt the agency to change its policies.
"I brought this lawsuit to bring about change necessary to ensure that employees with targeted disabilities receive the same promotions and career advancement opportunities as nondisabled employees," he said.
Increased training of supervisors is a key part of the agreement, because "implicit bias is the biggest issue to deal with," Goldstein said. Training can "make supervisors comfortable with employees with disabilities and [able to] recognize their capacity."
An EEOC administrative judge certified the case as a class action in 2008, and Social Security appealed the decision that December. The agency tried to decertify the case based on a 2011 Supreme Court decision in a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. case, but that was denied by an administrative judge.
The plaintiffs and the agency went to mediation before reaching the agreement.