Library of Congress Accused of Firing Worker for Being Gay

Posted April 9, 2012 at 4:25pm

Updated: 7:12 p.m. April 10

It allegedly started with “liking” a Facebook page about two dads. It ended in the first step toward formal legal action against a revered D.C. institution.

Peter TerVeer, once a management analyst in the Inspector General’s Office at the Library of Congress, was fired last week.

In a complaint filed with the Library of Congress’ Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints Office, which could issue an opinion in the days ahead, he is alleging that his former supervisor John Mech, a senior auditor, discriminated against him because he is gay.

TerVeer came on as a temporary employee with the LOC in February 2008. Receiving awards for strong performance, he was hired on full time in October of that year and received his first of two promotions the following March. He continued to work well with Mech and other members of the staff. He and Mech were actually good friends at work, bonding over a shared love of sports in particular.

In August 2009, TerVeer said things began to change, as documents obtained by Roll Call suggest. Mech’s daughter noticed that TerVeer had “liked” the “Two Dads” page on Facebook, which led her to ask TerVeer whether he was gay. He said yes.

Shortly after, TerVeer said, he started to receive emails from Mech that contained “religiously motivated harassment and discrimination.” Mech then called him into a meeting for the purposes of “educating him on hell and that it awaited him for being a homosexual.”

A performance review came back from Mech containing, for the first time in TerVeer’s career at the LOC, less than stellar marks. TerVeer said that each time he challenged Mech about the review, he responded with verbal abuse and name-calling, often humiliating him in front of peers.

All this resulted, TerVeer said, in an emotional response so great that his doctor ordered him to go on extended medical leave.

He was ultimately fired for missing 37 consecutive workdays, though TerVeer maintains that library officials had signed off on his request for disability time off.

Gayle Osterberg, communications director for the LOC, said that the agency does not comment on personnel matters.

Though previous media reports have said that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is deliberating on the complaint, it is actually still being looked at within the LOC, according to Thomas Simeone, TerVeer’s attorney of just a few days.

For legislative branch agencies like the LOC, a discrimination complaint is first filed within an internal Equal Employment Opportunity Complaints Office. Upon receiving a complaint, the office must deliver a ruling. Simeone told Roll Call he expects a decision regarding his client within the month.

Should the ruling not be in TerVeer’s favor, he and his legal team can appeal that case with the EEOC, which has 180 days to review the case. Depending on its ruling, Simeone said, the next step is legal action in the courts.

The hope is that a lawsuit won’t be necessary, but the prospects of a sympathetic ruling from either the LOC or the EEOC are shaky.

The EEOC looks to protect employees who are subject to discrimination as defined by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The title “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.” Osterberg suggested that the LOC, in its handling of discrimination claims, also “adheres to Title VII.”

It does not bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“You have a right to be free from same-sex harassment, but you do not have a right based on sexual orientation as far as the EEOC is concerned,” said Debra Katz, a lawyer who specializes in employment discrimination and sexual harassment, including such cases within Congressional support agencies. “[The statement] ‘I was discriminated against because I’m gay’ would not be covered under federal discrimination law under Title VII.”

“There is no explicit protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation in Title VII, which is a huge problem,” said Josh Block, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union LGBT Project, adding that it underscores the need for Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would make it illegal to discriminate against employees for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

However, there could be legal precedent to aid TerVeer’s case.

In 2008, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that the LOC was in violation of federal law prohibiting sex discrimination when it rescinded a job offer to an applicant who was revealed to be undergoing a transition from male to female.

In TerVeer’s EEOC complaint, he also alleges discrimination based on his gender and his religious beliefs, which Simeone said went hand in hand with the discrimination his client endured for his sexual orientation. Those types of discrimination are covered by Title VII.

“We understand that federal law is what it is towards sexual orientation, but we think we have strong claims,” said Simeone, who will appear with TerVeer at a news conference Wednesday in front of the Library of Congress Madison Building.

Simeone also said that the LOC has its own internal policy regarding sexual orientation discrimination, or at least had one when TerVeer worked there.

Osterberg would not comment on specific policies, but an LOC document obtained by Roll Call and dated January of last year says that “the Library is committed to preventing and addressing all forms of discriminatory harassment,” including discrimination based on “sexual orientation or sexual identity.”

That document, however, encourages employees who believe they are victims of such harassment to file a complaint with the Office of Opportunity, Inclusiveness and Compliance, which is different from the office in which a formal complaint may be filed. An internal memo describing that department’s jurisdiction does not list sexual orientation as a covered area.

Correction: April 10, 2012

This story has been updated to clarify that the Library of Congress’ Equal Employment Opportunity Office is currently reviewing Peter TerVeer’s discrimination complaint. Roll Call was originally provided with erroneous information about where the complaint had been filed.