Discrimination Cases Dropping, But Perception of Bias Lingers

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:41pm

It has been nearly a decade since the end of a landmark class-action case sparked significant changes in the Library of Congress’ hiring and promotion practices. And while LOC officials trumpet their accomplishments, some employees believe racial and gender discrimination still lingers, as evidenced by numerous lawsuits filed each year.

The Library began instituting changes in its hiring and promotion practices in 1995 as part of a settlement agreement resulting from the case Cook v. Billington, which included more than 2,000 black LOC employees.

“We have made some tremendous strides in trying to make a working condition that is fair and equitable across the board,” asserts Deputy Librarian of Congress Donald Scott. The ongoing changes include several initiatives aimed at improving the Library’s Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints Office, such as a new tracking system for disputes.

But those efforts haven’t necessarily been effective, often lacking enforcement from senior management, argues David Shapiro, a civil rights and employment-discrimination attorney who has represented Library employees.

“The place has been for years just a seething cauldron of unrest,” Shapiro said.

In defense, Scott points to the drop in recent years in the number of cases in litigation, a fact he attributes to changes made at the Library.

“To date, for this current calendar year we’ve had two cases that have been filed so far. Now, are we satisfied with only two cases? No, we’re not,” Scott said in a late-October interview. “We’d like to have no cases.

“But we are realists from the standpoint that when you deal with a diverse work force such as we have that you are going to have some individuals who are not happy with the way that they perceive things ought to go,” he added.

In an April 2003 report, “Library of Congress Workforce Progress and Challenges,” Library officials also suggest that a plurality of internal EEO complaints — which may eventually lead to lawsuits when issues are not satisfactorily resolved — are filed by a small number of employees.

“Indeed, 27 employees account for 62 percent of active, open EEO cases. In addition, six employees filed roughly half of the 64 new discrimination complaints in 2002,” the report states.

But disputes still arise and are not uncommon, as evidenced by the new crop of lawsuits — often focused on perceived race- or sex-based discrimination — the Library must contend with each year.

“It’s always going to be true that the people who are willing to bring an action … are going to be few and far between compared to the number of people who are really suffering in a discriminatory situation,” Shapiro said, later adding: “It doesn’t mean there’s [only] a few problems.”

Shapiro continues to represent Reference Librarian Joan Higbee, who lost a three-year-long sexual discrimination lawsuit against the Library in late November.

While there is no typical example in the cases filed against the Library, among those lawsuits now pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is that of Mi Chu Wiens, a 24-year Library veteran who asserts she has faced both racial and sexual discrimination.

Wiens, an area specialist in the LOC’s Asian Division, began her career in 1977 after winning a separate lawsuit in which she argued the Library failed to hire her based on her gender.

Since that time, Wiens, a Chinese-American, argues she has faced retaliation from Library officials, including disparate pay levels and denied requests for promotions. She filed a new lawsuit in June 2002, seeking $300,000 in monetary damages.

“There are at least nine individuals I believe were similarly situated to me in terms of job performance or grade level but treated in a great deal more favorable way by [the] defendant,” Wiens contends in court documents.

An attorney representing Wiens did not return a telephone call seeking comment, but according to court documents, Wiens asserts she “consistently has undertaken research assignments from Defendant’s Congressional Research Service division that utilize her expertise in Chinese culture, language and society,” giving her responsibilities similar to those of CRS’ foreign or legal analysts.

“However, these same Analysts, who are non-Asian, non-yellow and/or non-Chinese, are paid at a higher GS levels than Plaintiff,” Wiens’ lawsuit asserts.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which represents the Library, has filed for summary judgement in the case.

In its motion, filed in November, U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard argues that Wiens has not faced disparate pay and is not eligible for advancement in her current job.

“Dr. Wiens is one of 18 area specialists in the Area Studies Collection Directorate, all of whom perform the same duties,” court document state. “None of the area specialist positions is graded above GS-13. These positions are at the top of their career ladder, which does not go to the GS-14 or GS-15 level.”

Additionally, Howard asserts, the individuals cited by Wiens have significantly dissimilar responsibilities as foreign affairs and economic policy analysts, and cannot be used for comparison purposes.

Wiens’ attorneys had not filed a response to the U.S. attorney’s motion as of late last week, but were expected to do so.

Also pending in the U.S. District Court system is the case of Donald Ware, a 21-year veteran of the Library. Ware filed a lawsuit in March 2003, asserting that his superiors discriminated against him based on both his race and gender, and retaliated against him for filing an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint about his situation.

Ware, who is black, centers his accusations on a proposed reorganization of the Library’s Human Resources Services division, which is led by Director of Human Services Teresa Smith.

“Ms. Smith has sought to block the advancement of Mr. Ware and other African-American males by excluding them from managerial and supervisory positions in the proposed re-organization of Human Resources Services,” court documents state. “She has also prevented Mr. Ware from being detailed into a position of high visibility and responsibility pending the re-organization.”

In its response, filed in May 2003, the U.S. Attorney’s Office denied Ware’s allegations and sought to have the case dismissed.

Among those civil rights lawsuits against the Library which have been completed in recent months was a suit filed by Library employee Mandy McGowan. LOC officials elected to settle the case in October, paying $125,000 to McGowan, who claimed she was the subject of racial and sex discrimination. McGowan, who is Korean, asserted that she had been passed over for selection as deputy associate director for automation in favor of a less-qualified, white male applicant.