Three former Maryland Legal Aid attorneys have filed a discrimination complaint against the pro bono law firm after their firing this summer.
Filed Monday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the complaint claims that Maryland Legal Aid discriminated against them based on their age, fired them in retaliation, and failed to accommodate staff with disabilities or those high-risk for the coronavirus.
Anita Bailey, former head of the Anne Arundel County office, Blake Fetrow, former head of the Prince George’s and Howard counties office, also known as Metro, and John Marshall, former head of the Montgomery County office, were dismissed in July. That was one week after sending a letter — signed by eight other chief attorneys who were not fired — to the Maryland Legal Aid leadership team raising concerns about the pro bono law firm’s reopening plans during the pandemic. Lisa Sarro, Bailey’s deputy in Annapolis, who didn’t sign the letter, was also fired.
Bailey, Fetrow, and Marshall claim their firing was in retaliation for requesting “reasonable accommodations on behalf of disabled and medically high-risk employees” and opposing the firm’s “refusal to grant ADA accommodations for employees," which would violate the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The EEOC is the agency responsible for enforcing workforce civil rights laws.
“[Maryland] Legal Aid violated federal, state, and local laws that protect employees who request accommodations and oppose disability-based discrimination,” said Linda Hitt Thatcher, the Greenbelt-based attorney representing the three lawyers.
“Legal Aid fired my clients after they sought accommodations for their disabled employees and a viable plan to safely continue serving clients, reopen offices and retain skilled legal staff.”
Despite the claims, all three would like reinstatement, Hitt Thatcher said, because they are “still devoted to the public interest.”
Maryland Legal Aid’s executive team, headed by Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph, did not respond to a request for comment.
A group of more than 130 former Maryland Legal Aid employees has condemned the firing. Joseph has dismissed criticism of the firings as coming from “people who don’t have the facts." He told a reporter from The Daily Record that he has no intention to resign.
The complaint provides the clearest picture yet into the concerns staff had leading up to the organization’s July 20 reopening. It also details the denials made by executive team members when approached with requests for accommodations.
Numerous staffers, some of whom were disabled or high-risk to the coronavirus, raised safety concerns about returning to the office for the first time since March, according to the complaint. Fetrow, then a member of the firm’s reopening committee, relayed those concerns to Gustava Taler, the firm’s chief operating officer, asking whether the executive team would grant reasonable accommodations for telework.
Taler was dismissive, according to the complaint, replying: “You can tell your people that there are other organizations that will allow them to telework, and if people want that, they should leave and go work for one of those organizations. That is not how we operate.”
After managers asked at a May 18 meeting about telework, Taler said, “If your staff doesn’t want to come in, then they can get another job,” documents show.
In one instance, an employee in the Anne Arundel County office with chronic lung disease told Gina Polley, the firm’s deputy chief counsel, she was “the most high-risk person in the office” and believed she could die if she contracted COVID-19, according to the complaint. Polley denied her request, and to this day, the employee “remains on-site, in a position that exposes her to the walk-in public.” Other staff members told their managers they did not make similar requests because they were afraid of retaliation.
Neither Taler nor Polley responded to specific questions about these incidents.
In August, the union representing Maryland Legal Aid employees filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the firings were meant to have a chilling effect on staffers expressing health concerns. An investigation is ongoing.
Sarro, who has not filed a complaint with the EEOC, said she has no interest in returning Maryland Legal Aid.
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Last month, she was hired as general counsel for the county’s nonprofit community resources arm, Arundel Community Development Services, to help with its eviction prevention program.
Sarro has previously said her firing was because “the executive team lost confidence in [her] ability to lead the office.” Similar language was used to justify Bailey and Fetrow’s termination. However, Marshall claims his firing was “because [he] asked for a policy reconsideration," the complaint shows.
Bailey, 56, Fetrow, 54, and Marshall, 63, also allege Maryland Legal Aid discriminated against them because of their age. The firm’s executive team “strongly prefers young, unmarried, childless staff members,” according to the complaint and saw the three as “a costly burden” because they earned more than younger counterparts.
“MLA retained other, younger chief attorneys despite the fact that they also signed the July 17th letter requesting reasonable accommodations for high-risk, disabled employees," the complaint read.
Bailey began working at the firm in August 1998 as a staff attorney before becoming a chief attorney in 2004. Fetrow joined the organization in 1996, and Marshall began working there in 2017.