Social Security Judge Sues for Religious Freedom

HOUSTON (CN) – A Social Security Administration judge whose bosses are pressuring him to watch an LGBT-diversity training video he says violates his religious beliefs seeks an injunction to stop the agency from firing him.

Gary Suttles has presided over Social Security disability-benefit hearings in Houston since April 2005, according to his lawsuit filed Thursday in Houston federal court against Social Security Administration Commissioner Nancy A. Berryhill.

He says in the complaint that before his boss officially reprimanded him in November over his refusal to watch the 17-minute video “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Community,” or read the transcript, he had a “sterling work record” and had “never received a formal reprimand or warning of any kind.”

Suttles says the trouble started in May 2016 when SSA hearing officer director Melissa Huett emailed all Houston Region SSA workers, ordering them to watch the video by June 6, as part of the administration’s efforts to enhance cultural awareness in the workplace.

The next day, Suttles says, he emailed Huett: “I will not be participating in this training. I am already fully aware to treat all persons with respect and dignity and have done so my entire life. Furthermore, this type of government indoctrination training does not comport with my religious views and I object on that basis as well.”

Suttles says he asked a higher-ranking SSA boss, chief administrative law judge Monica J. Anderson, to let him, on his own expense and time, take an ethics course or watch a different video that “did not deal with such specific community of people.”

Anderson declined to go along with Suttles’ suggestions, he says, telling him it would be an “undue burden” for the agency to grant his request for religious accommodation.

“Allowing employees to remain untrained on the topics covered by the mandatory video creates a risk of liability to the agency, poses a potential harm to other employees, and threatens the agency’s core public mission,” Anderson wrote in a July 22 memo to Suttles that is cited in the lawsuit.

She did, however, offer to let him read a transcript of the video instead of watching it, Suttles says. But Suttles maintains that even reading the transcript would violate his faith.

The impasse led Joan Saunders, SSA’s regional chief administrative law judge, to officially reprimand Suttles in November – a demerit that will be in his personnel file for a year – revoke his telecommuting privileges, and make him ineligible to request a job transfer, according to the complaint.

Saunders also allegedly told Suttles that “future acts of misconduct” could lead to his “removal … from federal service.”

But Suttles says Saunders tempered the reprimand the very next week, sending him a commendation letter that stated, “Your process and procedures may be what we need to communicate to other judges to enable them to perform at a higher level.”

Despite the praise, Anderson continued to order him to watch the video, the complaint states.

So, Suttles says, he turned to another branch of the federal government for protection. He contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity, which handles federal employees’ workplace discrimination claims, on Dec. 21.

Suttles claims that in early January he told Anderson the EEO claim process, including possible mediation, could take until at least March 31, 2017, to play out, and asked for a 60-day extension of his deadline to watch the video.

Though Anderson has acknowledged Suttles’ EEO claim, she is not sympathetic, according to his lawsuit.

She denied his extension request and ordered him to watch the video or read the transcript by Valentine’s Day.

Unwilling to risk the SSA following through on its threats to fire him, despite its knowledge of his EEO claim, Suttles went to court.

He claims the SSA is violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

Suttles seeks a preliminary injunction to stop the SSA from issuing further orders that would force him to violate his religious beliefs, to prevent the agency for disciplining him anymore for refusing to watch the video, and to “maintain the status quo” until his EEO claim runs its course. He is represented by Robert Painter in Houston.

An SSA spokesman said it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. He said the agency employs 1,663 administrative law judges throughout the United States, but declined to say if they were all required to watch the video.

Though Suttles claims to have an otherwise spotless work record with the SSA, the Austin American-Statesman reported in July 2015 that comments Suttles made to a Navy veteran, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, during an April 2014 disability-appeal hearing led to calls for his temporary removal from office.

Suttles reportedly questioned how Shawn McMurray developed PTSD during the U.S. military’s invasion of Iraq in 1991, during which McMurray was stationed on an aircraft carrier.

“I mean hey, you were in the Navy. You weren’t even fighting on the ground. To me it would have been exciting. What do you mean stressful?” Suttles told McMurray, the American-Statesman reported, citing a recording of the hearing.

“After being informed of Suttles’ exchange with McMurray, the agency said it plans to launch an investigation into the judge and ‘take action, as appropriate,’” the article states.

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