Covington & Burling scored a partial victory today in a discrimination suit up on appeal at the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In her original complaint filed in July 2005, Kathleen Barrett, a former programmer and analyst in the firm's information resources department, sued Covington under the D.C. Human Rights Act, alleging that she was subjected to a hostile work environment because of her prolonged bouts with a series of illnesses and a major surgery that kept her out of the office for months at a time. Barrett also accused the firm of failing to provide reasonable accommodations and of firing her in violation of D.C. laws against disability discrimination.
In today's 25-page opinion (.pdf), penned by Judge John Fisher and joined by Judge Inez Smith Reid and Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby, the court agreed with the trial court that most of Barrett's allegations were time barred and that she failed to prove that she was actually fired or that Covington had forced her to work in a hostile work environment. Citing a conversation Barrett had with Covington's human resources director Mary Ellen Carter, Fisher writes, "There is no indication that Ms. Carter used abusive or inappropriate language or behaved in an objectively hostile fashion in the course of her conversation with Ms. Barrett. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Ms. Carter could have conveyed the terms of Ms. Barrett's return to work in a less hostile fashion."
However, the court reversed and remanded D.C. Superior Court Judge Melvin Wright's finding that even if the firm had made efforts to accommodate Barrett's chronic pancreatitis and other illnesses, such as allowing her to work remotely or to work fewer hours, she would not have been able to perform her job.
"Although it appears uncontested that [Barrett] had a disability, the parties debate whether she was capable of performing the job even with reasonable accommodation," Fisher writes in the opinion. The appeals court limited the reversal to issues that arose during a two-month time period in 2004 that would not be barred by the statute of limitations.
Heather White, an associate at Kalijarvi, Chuzi & Newman who represented Barrett on appeal, said she was pleased with the court's ruling. "I think Ms. Barrett will be pleased to go to trial on any of her issues," White says. "We'll take what we can get."
White said the court's ruling addressed an "interesting and important" issue for the plaintiff's bar, namely how individual requests for accommodation are addressed under the statute of limitations. The court's opinion adopted the guidelines set by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit in Tobin v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., which hold that each denial of a request for accommodation is subject to new one-year limitation for filing suit.
James McCollum Jr., a solo practitioner in College Park, Md. who argued on behalf of Covington, was not immediately available for comment.
In a statement, the firm said, "We are pleased that the Court of Appeals has affirmed a judgment in the firm's favor on all but one of plaintiff's claims. We believe that the remaining claim will not withstand the scrutiny that the Court of Appeals has indicated will be appropriate on remand."