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Legal Aid Atty's Firing Violated Disability Law, EEOC Says

By Kevin Penton | April 26, 2019, 7:45 PM EDT

An organization that provides legal services to poor and underage defendants violated federal law when it terminated an attorney diagnosed with various mental health issues rather than transfer her to another role, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleged Friday in Pennsylvania federal court.

The Defender Association of Philadelphia should have accommodated the employee, who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, by transferring her to a vacant position that would have spared her from dealing with sex-based criminal offenses on a daily basis, according to the EEOC's complaint in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. By firing her instead, the organization breached the Americans with Disabilities Act, the agency said.

The attorney, Megan Perez, was diagnosed with the disorders based on her work at the Defender Association, in which she represented individuals involved in sex-based criminal cases, according to the complaint.

Perez took a leave of absence in July 2017 under the Family and Medical Leave Act, later extending her time away under long-term disability benefits, according to the complaint. She intended to return to the Defender Association in January 2018, but while one set of supervisors initially agreed to transfer her to another role, two individuals from the organization's human resources department opted to terminate her in December 2017, according to the EEOC.

"Defendant never offered Perez a transfer or reassignment to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation," the complaint reads. "Upon learning about Perez's disability and her request for accommodation, defendant did not engage in a good faith interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation was available."

The EEOC says that it attempted to settle the matter with the Defender Association, but the two sides failed to reach a deal, according to the complaint.

The commission wants the court to order the Defender Association to pay Perez an unspecified amount of back pay and prejudgment interest, that it reinstate her, that it implement non-discriminatory practices and policies, and that it be permanently barred from violating the ADA, according to the complaint.

"The ADA is designed to keep people with disabilities working, and that includes providing a reasonable accommodation such as a transfer instead of termination, which harms the employee as well as the employer," said Debra M. Lawrence, an EEOC attorney, in a statement on Friday.

Defender Association officials could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The EEOC is represented in-house by Debra M. Lawrence, Maria L. Morocco and Joshua E. Zugerman.

Counsel information for the Defender Association was not immediately available on Friday.

The case is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Defender Association of Philadelphia, case number 2:19-cv-01803, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

--Editing by Adam LoBelia.