In 1998, a postal worker at a facility in Washington, D.C. filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He said that the United States Postal Service had refused to reasonably accommodate his disability, which was hearing impairment. After mediating with the EEOC, the USPS promised to provide the man with the American Sign Language interpreter he needed to do his job.
The post office failed to deliver, however, and two years later he filed another complaint for disability discrimination. When that lawsuit didn’t get action from the USPS, he filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all deaf and hearing-impaired postal workers under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the law prohibiting employment discrimination in federal workplaces.
Unfortunately, after nine years of E litigation, neither the workers nor the USPS had a definitive answer about whether the USPS discriminated against deaf and hearing-impaired employees and, if so, what should be done. The parties entered into two years of mediation and reached agreement on all of the issues except one: how much the plaintiffs’ attorneys should be paid.
Under the negotiated settlement, the USPS agreed to an order requiring them to make changes that will allow all deaf and hearing-impaired employees to fully participate in the workplace, including:
- Purchase state-of-the-art technology to assist deaf and hearing-impaired workers
- Make ASL interpreters available to the workers
- Train supervisors and create internal controls to ensure these workplace accommodations are in place, and
- Submit to an independent ombudsman to monitor the postal service’s compliance and resolve disputes.
In addition, the agency will compensate eligible class members for the disability discrimination, in amounts ranging from $250 to $10,000 or more, depending on the degree of harm they suffered. In total, the settlement totals $4.55 million, minus claims administration costs.
How much of that was appropriate for the plaintiffs’ lawyers, however, was such a sticking point that the parties ultimately had to ask a federal judge to decide. When the settlement was as final as it could be, the parties went before the judge for a hearing to determine whether the settlement was fair, as is required in virtually all settlements. At that hearing, the legal fee question took up an entire day of testimony.
Finally, the judge approved the settlement, finding it adequate, fair and reasonable. After carefully reviewing the number of potential class members likely to apply for relief and how much they could be expected to receive, the judge finally settled the burning question. He allowed the class-action plaintiffs’ counsel $910,000 in attorneys' fees and $114,216 for expenses.
- Courthouse News Service, “Judge OKs USPS' $4.5M Deal With Deaf Workers,” Dan McCue, Aug. 2, 2013
- Memorandum Opinion, Hubbard, et al. v. Donahoe, Postmaster General, United States Postal Service, Civil Case No. 03-1062 (RJL), U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, July 31, 2013