LANSING – A state employee who helped Michiganders get disability benefits is now suing the state for allegedly discriminating against her because of her own disability.
Becky Harte, a 39-year-old DeWitt woman who’s worked for the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services since 2000, alleges in court filings that, over the last 10 years, her managers at the department have penalized her because she has multiple sclerosis. DHHS supervisors have denied her promotions and written her up for taking time off to deal with her illness, she said.
“I feel like I’ve lost the past 10 years of my life, and I don’t know what a person does with that,” Harte said in an interview with the State Journal last week. “The state’s supposed to lead by example.”
In court filings, the department said Harte was not promoted because there were more qualified candidates and called her claims of discrimination “speculation and conjecture.”
Department spokesman Bob Wheaton declined to comment on the specifics of the case because of the pending litigation, but said in an emailed statement that the “department is very much committed to having a diverse workforce and providing equal employment opportunity.”
Harte is seeking $1.3 million , including attorney fees, non-economic damages and more than $28,000 in wages she said she lost because of the denied promotions.
Earlier this month, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk dismissed Harte’s claims to events that happened before June 2011 because of the statute of limitations. But the judge allowed the rest of the case to proceed and a trial is scheduled for Nov. 16 .
Harte said she was diagnosed with MS — an incurable nerve disorder that can cause fatigue, numbness, blurred vision and trouble concentrating — in October 2001, when she was working as a state family independence specialist. By 2005, she was working as a disability examiner and she sought a reduced and more flexible work schedule and permission to handle more of her cases on paper instead of electronically because the hardcopy files were easier on her symptoms.
Harte claims in court filings that her requests were stalled until she filed a grievance through her union and it wasn’t until 2006 that a settlement was reached. She was transferred to an examiner position within DHHS’s Medical Review Team, a specialized unit which helps determine whether Michiganders are eligible for state disability benefits. She was allowed to work fewer hours and was given other accommodations to help her handle the MS symptoms.
Harte said that transfer was technically a promotion, but she was never given the appropriate pay raise. She said she’s been denied numerous promotions since then and the department left some positions unfilled when she was the only candidate.
In January 2012, Harte filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC determined in May 2013 that “the evidence supports” Harte’s claim that DHHS violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, and ordered her and the department to negotiate a resolution, according to court records.
In its Ingham County court filings, the department said it had “a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for not promoting her — namely that plaintiff failed to convince the interview panel members that she was the most qualified candidate.”
Harte claims the department retaliated against her for filing grievances and the EEOC complaint. She said the department has put her on corrective action plans for taking time off through the Family Medical Leave Act because of her illness and supervisors gave her a hard time about using an older computer monitor that is easier for her to use because of her symptoms.
Last year, she filed a second EEOC complaint,in which the agency again determined "there is reason to believe that violations have occurred." In January of this year, Harte said she was transferred back out of the Medical Review Team and she’s been asked to handle more electronic than hardcopy case files. Her lawsuit was filed this summer.
In its court filings, the department said “even though (Harte) may subjectively believe that any purported unwelcome conduct or communication was because of her disability, speculation and conjecture is not enough” for a lawsuit.
Harte has been on an unpaid medical leave since July. She said all she really wants from the case is to go back to work for the Medical Review Team with the promotion she’d sought years ago.
Even then, “I don’t think you can actually say there’s any success when the history is so negative,” she said.
Becky Harte and Attorney Jim Fett were victorious, eventually settling her lawsuit for an undisclosed amount.