October 6, 2020
By: Ally Schweitzer
Three former senior attorneys for Maryland Legal Aid have filed a discrimination complaint against the pro-bono law firm.
In charges filed Monday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency that enforces federal employment discrimination law, the attorneys accuse the nonprofit of retaliation, age discrimination and failure to accommodate staff with disabilities.
The three attorneys behind the complaint — Anita Bailey, Blake Fetrow and John Marshall — are among four high-ranking staff members who were fired in July, one week after they criticized an executive-level plan to partially reopen the firm’s 12 offices during the coronavirus pandemic. The lawyers had co-signed a letter urging executives to let staff continue working from home.
Maryland Legal Aid (MLA) is the state’s largest source of free civil legal services for low-income residents. A spokesperson for the organization did not respond to a request for comment. The organization’s executive director previously dismissed criticism of the firm’s management as coming from “people who don’t have the facts.”
Charging documents filed with the EEOC and signed under penalty of perjury allege that executives and Human Resources representatives at MLA denied or ignored telework requests from older and vulnerable staff members who feared returning to work as the coronavirus continued to spread. In one alleged incident outlined in the filings, a front-line employee at the firm’s Anne Arundel County office requested accommodation because she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that, if she contracted COVID-19, could put her at risk of death. MLA’s deputy chief counsel denied her request, the documents allege, and that employee continues to work on site “in a position that exposes her to the walk-in public.”
The filings accuse a top MLA executive of telling senior attorneys that staff members seeking telework “can get another job,” and that same executive is accused of targeting the three attorneys, who are all in their 50’s or older, for termination because of their age.
The three were among 11 Legal Aid attorneys who signed the July letter to executives questioning the reopening plan, but the other signatories were not fired, they say. “MLA retained other, younger chief attorneys” despite the fact they raised identical concerns, the complaint says, alleging that executives at the firm “strongly prefer young, unmarried, childless staff members” who earn lower salaries.
Bailey, Fetrow and Marshall are represented by Linda Hitt Thatcher, a Maryland-based attorney who specializes in employment discrimination. In a statement, Thatcher says her clients were fired “because they stood up for the basic rights of their most vulnerable workers.” She adds that Bailey, Fetrow and Marshall are all seeking reinstatement to their positions at Maryland Legal Aid.
Workers who believe their employer has fired them for certain discriminatory reasons must file a complaint with the EEOC before they can sue. Sometimes these charges can lead to mediation, or the commission can launch an investigation into the complaints. Parties who file disability-related charges must be granted permission from the EEOC before they can bring a lawsuit in federal court, though charges of age discrimination don’t require such a notice.
Six current employees of MLA condemned this summer’s firings in interviews with WAMU/DCist in August. Several said losing experienced senior lawyers weakens the nonprofit’s ability to help low-income Marylanders during the health crisis. A top provider of civil legal services to low-income individuals, MLA served more than 121,000 people in 2016 across all Maryland counties, according to a 2017 fact sheet. One of its specialties is assisting affordable-housing tenants in eviction cases. Thousands of renters in the state are at risk of losing their homes once eviction protections on the state and federal level expire, according to an analysis by the Aspen Institute.
The fourth attorney who was fired, Lisa Sarro, did not sign the July letter to executives, and she has not filed a complaint with the EEOC along with her former colleagues. Sarro is represented by attorney Peter Holland, who tells WAMU/DCist that his client “intends to pursue all of her rights,” but declined to elaborate further. She says she does not want to be reinstated.
“I have no interest in returning to work at Maryland Legal Aid,” Sarro writes in a text message. “Ever.”