Court Dismisses Hostile Work Environment Claim

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia recently dismissed a claim of hostile work environment  under the Rehabilitation Act.  Katz v. Department of Justice, No. 1:20-cv-554 (June 20, 2022). In dismissing the case, Judge Ellis found that the plaintiff’s own pleadings doomed his claim. 

The plaintiff was employed as a Special Agent for the DEA from May 1996 until April 2020. In 2017, Katz was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As an accommodation, DEA allowed Katz to transfer from Arlington, Virginia to Fayetteville, North Carolina so that he could be closer to Duke University Medical Center, where he was receiving treatment.  

In January 2019, Katz became concerned that DEA was violating federal law regarding conflicts of interest by awarding contracts to friends and former colleagues.  Katz then made a complaint about this activity with the FBI, who referred it to DOJ’s Inspector General’s Office. 

In his lawsuit, Katz  alleged that, after he made his complaint to the FBI, DEA decided to relocate the program he was working on from Fayetteville to Arlington. Specifically, Katz alleged: “the move to relocate the CATS program had one purpose and one purpose only, to force Katz from the Agency as part of a retaliatory scheme to punish Katz for complaining about the corruption inherent in the award of the CATS program by senior DEA employees to their former colleagues.”  

Katz refused to relocate to Arlington, opting instead to retire from DEA. He then filed suit against the agency.  DEA filed a Motion to Dismiss, which Judge Ellis granted in part and denied in part.  Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint, and DEA moved to dismiss the hostile work environment claim based on the Rehabilitation Act.

The Court granted the motion, finding that Katz’s Second Amended Complaint specifically alleged that his whistleblowing activities, not his disability, were the sole and exclusive reason for his duties being transferred to Arlington:

“The facts alleged in the complaint fail to plead, much less to plead plausibly, any causal link between plaintiff’s disability and the alleged hostile work environment plaintiff endured. Without this causal link, the Second Amended Complaint fails to state a plausible hostile work environment claim.” 

Judge Ellis also ruled that Katz’s claims of hostile work environment were not actionable even if he had adequately pled a causal connection.  “The additional harassment plaintiff alleges in his SAC–which amounts to little more than requests for documentation as part of the reasonable accommodation process — fails to clear this high bar [of satisfying the severe or pervasive test].” Finding that an employer need not keep keep an accommodation in place “in perpetuity,” the Court held that DEA was entitled to revoke the accommodation after completing a thorough review.  Notably, Katz had failed to respond to multiple requests from DEA for documentation concerning the nature and frequency of his visits to Duke. 

The Katz decision is useful for two reasons. First, it is a reminder that plaintiffs must choose their words carefully when pleading a claim. Second, the case reinforces the notion that accommodations to disabilities are not static, and both employers and employees must continue to cooperate and be flexible as circumstances change. 

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