The Washington Post
Worker Takes EPA to Court — Again
Retaliation for Discrimination Suit Alleged
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 10, 2004; Page A23
On a recent balmy Monday, Marsha Coleman-Adebayo walked into a federal courtroom to fight the Environmental Protection Agency.
The two sides argued, not over the environment, but the working environment: At issue was whether Coleman-Adebayo should be allowed to continue working out of her Bethesda home rather than at the agency’s downtown offices in the District.
The arguments came in a lawsuit Coleman-Adebayo filed against her employer of 14 years. She believes that the EPA has been trying to force her out of her job since she took the agency to court for discrimination six years ago and won a $300,000 judgment. She alleges that the EPA is also retaliating against her for testifying before Congress that the agency targets whistle-blowers and other employees who buck the system.
“My story is the story of so many people in government,” said Coleman-Adebayo, a senior policy analyst at the agency. “If you file a discrimination complaint, your career is over. What that means is that the 1964 Civil Rights Act is a joke in federal cases.”
EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the agency is transferring Coleman-Adebayo to a position for which she is better suited.
Stephen M. Kohn, chairman of the National Whistleblower Center, said Coleman-Adebayo’s discrimination case evolved into a whistle-blower case after she testified against the EPA at congressional hearings in 2000 and 2002.
“There is still widespread hostility toward whistle-blowers” at the agency, Kohn said. “EPA has had a lot of whistle-blower cases that have been found to be valid.”
Workers who complain about discrimination in the federal bureaucracy, or retaliation by managers, rarely receive public attention. But Coleman-Adebayo’s testimony in her 1998 court case and her subsequent activism pushed her troubles at the EPA into the spotlight.
She testified that a superior referred to her as an “honorary white man” during a staff meeting in 1990 and said during a performance evaluation that white co-workers were uncomfortable around her because she was “uppity,” as in “uppity Negro.”
When Coleman-Adebayo, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, was later passed over for a promotion, the same manager mentioned her pregnancy at the time, according to the transcript of her testimony.
“You’ve just come off maternity leave. . . . I find it difficult to understand how women think they can get pregnant, have children and still compete with a man,” she quoted the manager as saying. The manager disputed her recollection of those conversations.
The jury found in her favor. According to a 2003 report on EPA management practices by the General Accounting Office, her manager was never disciplined. But Coleman-Adebayo said her career went into a free fall, and she is fighting in court to keep her job.
Reps. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) rallied behind her cause, launched an investigation of EPA and other agencies and pushed a new anti-discrimination law called the No Fear Act through Congress. The bill, formally the Notification and Federal Employee Anti-discrimination and Retaliation Act, was signed by President Bush in 2002.
“If I committed an act that cost taxpayers money, I would pay the price for that at reelection,” said Sensenbrenner, a former chair of the House Science Committee, which monitors the EPA. “The fact that the manager hasn’t been disciplined shows that the culture at EPA is to protect their own even when they’re wrong.”
The No Fear Act requires agencies to settle discrimination complaints brought by employees out of their general funds. Between 2001 and last year, federal agencies paid $656 million to settle discrimination complaints, according to a report last month by the GAO.
Karen Higginbotham, director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, said Sensenbrenner’s assertion is unfair. The agency polices discrimination vigorously, she said, and most managers have undergone civil rights training. EPA established a staff last year to intervene in disputes.
As a result, she said, the agency reduced the number of complaints filed by workers from 104 in 2002 to 74 last year, sliced its backlog of cases from 171 to 160, and cut the $1.1 million cost of processing complaints in 2002 by more than half the following year.
Higginbotham also said the EPA is a favored place to work.
In a survey of federal employees conducted in 2002 by American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation and the Partnership for Public Service, the EPA ranked fifth among 28 federal agencies as one of the best places to work. Minority employees also ranked the EPA in the top five.
“Look at the progress we’ve made,” Higginbotham said. “I think that’s also a story.”
Coleman-Adebayo, noting that the EPA was established in 1970, or about 32 years before the reforms Higginbotham cited, said she would not rank the agency so high.
At least two doctors have written the EPA on her behalf, saying that exposure to her superiors, some of whom played a role in defending the agency from her lawsuit, could raise her hypertension to dangerous levels. Coleman-Adebayo also suffers from glaucoma, doctors have said, and should work at home.
The EPA disagreed, saying Coleman-Adebayo should come to work. In December, she was reassigned against her will from her job as senior policy adviser to director. So she sued the agency again this year.
“Their defense against me is more vigorous this time,” she said. “I think the reason they are going after me is they want to make an example of my case.”
Higginbotham said she could not comment further on a personnel matter, especially one that is pending before a court.
Bergman, the EPA spokeswoman, said in a statement: “We feel that we’ve created a position where [Coleman-Adebayo] can provide critical and meaningful work for the Agency. We hope she will give this new position, and a new management team, a chance to work.”
Meanwhile, Coleman-Adebayo continues her campaign against alleged abuse by managers in the federal workplace. She co-founded the No Fear Institute, which monitors how government agencies handle civil rights complaints. It recently gave failing grades to four agencies for their lack of speed in investigating discrimination complaints to their equal opportunity offices.
“I think what I’m doing with the No Fear Institute is very important,” Coleman-Adebayo said. “I think I’m really making a contribution. I’m trying to make a difference in making sure the federal government abides by the rules.”
© 2004 The Washington Post Company