Ms. Carolyn Milton, who has depression, received disability benefits for fourteen years under the Federal Employees' Compensation Act ("FECA"), which is administered by the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs ("OWCP") within the Department of Labor. Ms. Milton sought vocational rehabilitation services to support her return to the workforce. Instructed by the Department of Labor to find employment, she applied for a position as a program support clerk with the Department of Veterans Affairs ("VA"). During her interview, she voluntarily disclosed her disability. She was offered the position, but before starting work, she was asked to provide the VA with documents from OWCP indicating she had fully recovered from her disability, and that the support clerk position was suitable full time employment for her.
Ms. Milton's rehabilitation counselor sent a letter to the VA stating she had been released to perform the job at the VA, but not whether she had recovered from depression or whether the position was suitable. A VA official contacted the OWCP inquiring whether she was suitable for the job. Someone from OWCP told the official that the counselor never should have sent the letter that released her to perform the job because the counselor had no authority to act on behalf of OWCP with respect to employment determinations. This official further indicated that because Ms. Milton was under medical care and receiving workers' compensation, the Department of Labor could not provide a letter stating she was suitable for the clerk position. Subsequently the VA withdrew its offer of employment to Ms. Milton.
The VA argued that Ms. Milton failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and, alternately, that Ms. Milton's "fail[ure] to obtain a job suitability letter according to OWCP procedures" was a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for withdrawing the job offer. Ms. Milton further argued that the VA's stated reason was a pretext (i.e., false or an excuse), because the job offer was withdrawn due to her disability.
Applying the standard that "[i]t is sufficient if the defendant's [purported nondiscriminatory reason] raises a genuine issue of fact as to whether [the defendant] discriminated against the plaintiff," the court concluded that failure to obtain the required letter met that standard. Rather than intentional discrimination or pretext, the court found that the VA may have misinterpreted regulations regarding the suitability letter, which did not support her claim that the offer was withdrawn because of her disability.
Assuming Ms. Milton could establish a prima facie case of discrimination for the purpose of addressing the reason for withdrawing the job offer, the court concluded that the VA successfully provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its decision and Ms. Milton was unable to show the reason was pretext.
Specifically, Section 504 provides that the "standards used to determine whether this section has been violated in a complaint alleging employment discrimination under this section shall be the standards applied under title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990." Therefore, when courts interpret claims of employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, they rely upon and create precedent for ADA employment discrimination cases.
It is not clear that the federal agencies involved in this case engaged in discrimination on the basis of disability, and yet the net result was the plaintiff did not have a job. The court suggests that the agencies mishandled the matter of the suitability letter. As such, a plaintiff may benefit from using the available administrative remedies for grievances before taking legal action.