Saturday, September 30, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Saturday, September 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal Attorney Can Sue HUD for Retaliation

(CN) - A U.S. Housing and Urban Development attorney accused of baking nails into office treats may sue the agency for its "relentless campaign to destroy" her career, a federal judge ruled.

Terri Román, a 30-year veteran attorney with the agency's Office of General Counsel, sued the agency's secretary, Julian Castro, under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act on Aug. 9, 2012.

U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in the District of Columbia issued an opinion on the matter Tuesday.

"Cupcakes embedded with nails served at an office potluck," Cooper wrote. "A fake transfer order dangled as bait to catch a suspected computer hacker. A formal investigation launched after an employee posted her probation notice in the office restrooms. Sexual harassment allegations leveled against a sight-impaired supervisor's female reader. Plotlines from a low-budget telenovela? Sadly not. All in a day's work, it would seem, in HUD."

Román claims she first complained about her supervisor, Nancy Christopher, to the then-general and deputy general counsels in April 2007.

With Christopher present, Román and three colleagues allegedly said the supervisor favored young, male attorneys, having Román do "traditional female tasks," like "beautify the office with plants" and cook for Christopher's private parties.

The situation only worsened later, when Román's other supervisor, Gerald Alexander, allegedly started a "memorandum for record" of emails and criticisms about her.

Weeks later, Román's supervisors retaliated by choosing a male attorney no more qualified than her to permanently fill a position she had served on an interim basis, she claims.

Within a year, all of Román's major cases were given to junior, male attorneys, even though she had received "outstanding" annual performance ratings for 20 years, she says.

Less than two months after Román filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint in November 2007, Christopher allegedly accused Román of bringing cupcakes with nails baked into them to the office's holiday party, though Román claims she was on leave at the time.

Weeks later, Alexander proposed to suspend Román without pay for five days.

After Román reported in June 2008 that she had been sexually harassed by Christopher's assistant, the pair allegedly accused Román of secretly accessing Christopher's computer.

Later that year, Román allegedly taped, in the office's women's and men's restrooms, copies of a proposal she found to remove her for failure to produce "reliable written work."

But Deputy General Counsel John Herold denied the proposal in January 2009.

HUD ultimately required Román to take "a new position in a remote building cut off from the rest of" the office in the Program Enforcement Division, where her new supervisor placed her under a performance improvement plan for "minimally successful" written work.

After HUD's Equal Employment Opportunity Division issued a final decision In May 2012, denying all of Román's discrimination claims, she filed suit in federal court.

Cooper partially denied the agency's motion for summary judgment Tuesday, upholding Román's retaliatory hostile work environment claim.

"The alleged repetitive nature of the referrals, the consistent lack of negative findings, the amateurism surrounding Christopher's efforts to ensnare Román in misconduct, and the effect that allegations of professional and criminal misconduct would have on a practicing attorney all could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that the investigation referrals were baseless and created an abusive work environment that altered the conditions of Román's employment," Cooper wrote.

A jury may conclude Román's nonselection was also retaliatory, based on "the evidence supporting temporal proximity between Román's protected activity and the nonselection decision, a potential pattern of antagonism of which the [memorandum for record] MFR and the nonselection decision were parts, and the two applicants' relative qualifications," Cooper wrote.

But the hostile environment was not based on Román's gender, the ruling states.

"Even if Christopher never required male employees to decorate the office or organize parties, Román has failed to establish that these requests were 'sufficiently extreme to constitute an alteration in the conditions of employment,' a showing required 'so that Title VII does not evolve into a "general civility code,"'" Cooper wrote.

Román's attorney, Robert Seldon with Seldon Bofinger & Associates in D.C., said she "responsibly alerted the general counsel of HUD to discrimination at the very top of" the agency.

"In return, she was targeted for termination and with vicious charges that she baked nails into cupcakes serve at an office get together," Seldon wrote in an email. "HUD knew Ms. Roman was on extended [family medical leave] FMLA leave at the time."

Indeed, according to Seldon, a senior member of the agency told HUD security that "Román and a colleague were suspects, because both had filed [Equal Employment Opportunity] EEO complaints."

The agency did not return emailed requests for comment on Thursday.

Categories / Uncategorized

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.