A lawsuit against the University of Wyoming regarding alleged disability discrimination in the workplace could be part of a nationwide trend spanning the last decade.
On March 27, attorneys filed a lawsuit against UW, UW Foundation, William “Ben” Blalock III and Mary Ivanoff on behalf of Mandy Davis, a former human resources manager at the foundation.
The lawsuit claims Davis was unlawfully retaliated against after she filed a complaint of employment discrimination on the basis of disability.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in fiscal year 2016 that 28,073 people filed charges with the commission of disability discrimination in the workplace. Despite national campaigns promoting workplace equality, disability claims have trended upwards since 1997.
For a short period between 2002-2006, disability charges decreased, but they resumed an upward trend in 2007, the commission reports.
While the percentage of disability discrimination charges filed with the commission has increased 12 percent since 2003, the percentages of racial and gender discrimination charges have both decreased about a percent since 1997.
Wyoming Independent Living Rehabilitation Program Director Dermot Thiel said his organization works in several capacities to assist disabled people in the workplace and the home. A few factors play a role in workplace disability discrimination, he said.
“There is a misconception that accommodating for disabled people is going to cost a lot of time and money,” Thiel said. “Probably, it’s just misunderstanding on the employers’ end as well as reluctance on the disabled person’s to talk about their disability.”
People sometimes keep their disabilities from their employers to avoid being viewed as handicapped, he said.
“People are really scared of getting stereotyped,” Thiel said. “They don’t want be profiled as any one thing.”
According to Davis’ lawsuit, she was part of a team responsible for interviewing and hiring a computer support specialist. The specialist selected by the team did not identify herself as disabled, but the lawsuit alleges Ivanoff, Davis’ direct supervisor, viewed the specialist’s physical appearance as an indication of disability.
Because the specialist had “one eye going one way and one eye going the other way,” Ivanoff said Blalock, the UW Foundation CEO, didn’t think the specialist looked appropriate, the lawsuit states.
“My role there as the human resources manager was to participate in all interviews,” Davis said.
The hiring team selected the specialist because of her skill set without discussing the possibility she might be disabled, she said.
“I don’t think that ever crossed any of our minds,” Davis said.
Thiel said he hadn’t encountered many hostile work environments, but misconceptions about disabled people were commonplace.
“Part of the issue is disabilities come in so many sizes and shapes,” Thiel said. “We’re used to thinking of people as handicapped — in a wheel chair or blind with a cane and dog.”
But disabilities could be a variety of non-visible problems such as psychological or internal, he said.
“Employers can operate on assumptions that your work performance is substandard and not realize there are real reasons behind what they’re seeing,” Thiel said. “It’s often a matter of talking to the person about minor adjustment.”
While that might be the case in other disability discrimination cases, Davis said the specialist’s work was above standard.
“She was wonderful,” Davis said. “She did a great job.”
However, Ivanoff alledgedly told Davis not to hire another “retard,” the lawsuit states.
After Davis filed a complaint with UW’s Office of Diversity and Employment Practices in July 2015, the lawsuit claims Ivanoff became dismissive around the office, and Blalock talked to the UW Foundation vice president about getting rid of Davis, the lawsuit states.
Despite being hired in 2014 for a position the UW Foundation stated was “critical,” and despite the UW Foundation fundraising efforts being ahead of schedule, which it uses a portion of to fund its operations, Davis’ position was eliminated in December 2015 through a reorganization process, the lawsuit states.
Thirteen days shy of a full year after hiring Davis and less than six months after she filed the discrimination complaint, the UW Foundation reported her position should be eliminated because “the functions performed are not critical to our primary responsibilities,” according to the lawsuit.
In March 2016, UW rehired Davis to work at the central human resources office as an employment and staffing partner, Davis said.
Before her position at the UW Foundation was eliminated, Davis earned about $58,000 a year, the lawsuit states. She was rehired at $38,000 a year.
“This is a matter I have not taken lightly,” Davis said. “I think really highly of the university. I received my baccalaureate here, and I’ve worked here for 10 years.”
UW spokesperson Chad Baldwin said both UW President Laurie Nichols and the UW Foundation would not comment.
Gov. Matt Mead did not respond to requests for comment.
While Davis is suing for damages, she said her primary goal was to change the attitude toward workplace discrimination she encountered at UW.
“My hope is employees are able to report concerns about discriminatory practices without fear of retribution,” Davis said.