October 7, 2020
By: Brooks DuBose
Three former Maryland Legal Aid attorneys fired by the pro bono law firm this summer have filed a discrimination complaint against the organization.
In charges filed Monday with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the attorneys allege that Maryland Legal Aid discriminated against them based on their age, fired them in retaliation and failed to accommodate staff with disabilities or who are at high-risk for the coronavirus.
The three attorneys are Anita Bailey, the former chief attorney for the Anne Arundel County office; Blake Fetrow, head of the Prince George’s and Howard county office; and John Marshall, head of the Montgomery County office. They were dismissed in July a week after sending a letter — signed by eight other chief attorneys who were not fired — to the Maryland Legal Aid leadership team raising concerns about the pro bono law firm’s plans to reopen its offices during the pandemic. Lisa Sarro, Bailey’s deputy in Annapolis, who didn’t sign the letter was also summoned to the organization’s Baltimore headquarters and fired.
Now, Bailey, Fetrow, and Marshall have filed a complaint with the federal agency responsible for enforcing workforce civil rights laws, alleging they were fired in retaliation for requesting “reasonable accommodations on behalf of disabled and medically high-risk employees” and opposing “MLA’s refusal to grant ADA accommodations for employees, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
“[Maryland] Legal Aid violated federal, state, and local laws that protect employees who request accommodations and oppose disability-based discrimination,” said Linda Hitt Thatcher, the attorney representing the three lawyers. “Legal Aid fired my clients after they sought accommodations for their disabled employees and a viable plan to safely continue serving clients, reopen offices and retain skilled legal staff.”
Bailey, 56, Fetrow, 54, and Marshall, 63, also allege age discrimination by MLA in their complaint.
Maryland Legal Aid’s executive team, headed by Executive Director Wilhelm Joseph, “strongly prefers young, unmarried, childless staff members,” according to the complaint.
“I was paid a higher salary than my younger, less experienced, counterparts and was considered a costly burden by the Executive Team,” the complaint continues. “MLA retained other, younger chief attorneys despite the fact that they also signed the July 17th letter requesting reasonable accommodations for high-risk, disabled employees.”
A request for comment by the firm’s executive team was not immediately returned Wednesday.
The complaint provides the clearest picture yet into the concerns staff had in the lead up to the organization’s planned reopening date of July 20. In it, the attorneys lay out a timeline dating back to May when Chief Operating Officer Gustava Taler established the organization’s reopening committee, created to craft reopening guidelines for staff. Fetrow was a member of the committee.
Numerous staffers, some of whom were disabled or high-risked, raised safety concerns about returning to office for the first time since March. Fetrow relayed those concerns to the committee and asked whether the executive team would grant reasonable accommodations for telework. Taler was dismissive, according to the complained, replying, “You can tell your people that there are other organizations that will allow them to telework, and if people want that, they should leave and go work for one of those organizations. That is not how we operate.”
At a May 18 meeting, managers again raised the question of telework. “If your staff doesn’t want to come in, then they can get another job,” Taler said, a response that she repeated on other occasions, according to the complaint.
Reasonable accommodation requests made by staffers were either ignored or declined. In one instance, an employee in the Anne Arundel County office with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and regularly uses an inhaler told the firm’s deputy chief counsel Gina Polley, that she is “the most high-risk person in the office” and “believes that she will die if she catches COVID-19.”
Polley denied her request.
Other staff members told their managers they did not request similar accommodations because they were afraid of retaliation.
Bailey began working at the firm in August 1998 as a staff attorney before becoming a chief attorney in 2004. Fetrow joined the organization in 1996 and Marshall began working there in 2017.
“Collectively, the three served MLA for almost 50 years, and they were fired because they stood up for the basic rights of their most vulnerable workers,” Hitt Thatcher said.
In August, the union representing Maryland Legal Aid employees filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the nonprofit firm’s executive team fired the attorneys to prevent staffers from expressing concerns about reopening offices during the coronavirus pandemic, an act protected by federal labor law. An investigation is ongoing.
This story will be updated.