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Home 9 Federal Legal Corner 9 EEOC Substantially Increases Damages

EEOC Substantially Increases Damages

December 05, 2012

In Sartini v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, EEOC Appeal No. 0120112305 (Sept. 19, 2012), the Commission modified the agency’s award of compensatory damages, awarding pecuniary damages and substantially increasing the non-pecuniary damages award.

At the time of the events giving rise to the complaint, Sartini worked as a housekeeping aide at a Veterans Affairs medical center. On November 4, 2009, Sartini filed an EEO complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of disability (lower lumbar injury) and in reprisal for prior EEO activity when his request for a reasonable accommodation was denied on March 2009, he was required to take a fitness for duty exam on February 8, 2010, and he was terminated on April 8, 2010.

On October 7, 2010, the agency issued a final decision, finding that agency officials had violated the Rehabilitation Act when they failed to interact with Sartini in order to determine his qualifications for possible reassignment and to conduct an appropriate search for a possible position. As relief for its discriminatory conduct, the agency awarded reinstatement and back pay. Additionally, it ordered a supplemental investigation on the issue of compensatory damages.

On February 25, 2010, the agency issued a final decision on compensatory damages. The agency awarded a $15,000 non-pecuniary damages award, finding that Sartini had suffered mental anguish, extreme emotional distress, depression, sleeplessness, embarrassment, paranoia and anxiety as a result of the agency’s discriminatory conduct. However, the agency denied Sartini’s claim for pecuniary damages on the ground that he had not shown that the health insurance, medical, pharmacy and transportation costs incurred during the relevant period were linked to the agency’s failure to accommodate him and that, in fact, such losses were more likely linked to his termination, which was not a violation of the Rehabilitation Act.

On appeal to the Commission, Sartini argued that his termination was directly intertwined with the agency’s failure to reasonably accommodate his disability and that the compensatory damages awarded by the agency were inadequate. First, Sartini argued that he had provided evidence that there was a marked increase in medical visits and pharmacy costs during the relevant period, and, thus, he had shown that the agency’s failure to accommodate his disability was directly related to those costs. Second, he argued that the case law upon which the agency relied in awarding $15,000 in non-pecuniary damages was irrelevant.

First, the Commission noted that Sartini had produced documentary evidence that showed out-of-pocket payments for medical treatment related to his back injury and his mental health treatment; his wife’s “Employee Statement of Earnings/Deductions” and termination of his health insurance benefits, and that he had incurred costs associated with visits to his psychiatrist and the purchase of prescribed medications. The Commission found that Sartini had failed to establish a claim for pecuniary damages in regard to the incurred costs associated with his health insurance, as well as the medical treatment he received for his back and his mental health because the evidence did not show to what extent those costs increased after the agency engaged in discrimination.

By contrast, the Commission found that Sartini had provided sufficient evidence to support a claim for pecuniary damages for the incurred costs associated with visits to his psychiatrist since the evidence showed that these visits doubled after the agency failed to accommodate him. Accordingly, the Commission found that Sartini was entitled to $855.20 in pecuniary damages, half the cost associated with these visits.

Second, the Commission agreed with Sartini that his termination was the direct result of the agency’s failure to accommodate his disability. Consequently, the Commission found that the agency’s award of $15,000 in compensatory damages was insufficient since the agency’s discriminatory conduct resulted in the aggravation of his preexisting back injury and the severe aggravation of his preexisting mental disorder, which was considered stable prior to the discriminatory conduct. Accordingly, relying on several prior decisions, the Commission held that Sartini was entitled to $50,000 in non-pecuniary compensatory damages.

In conclusion, contrary to the agency’s contention, the Commission held that Sartini was entitled to pecuniary damages in the amount of $855.20 and also substantially increased the agency’s award of compensatory damages from $15,000 to $50,000.