By Scott Schwebke | San Gabriel Valley Tribune
A judge has ruled the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services discriminated against two social worker trainees by subjecting them to unlawful pre-employment psychological evaluations and withdrawing internships and job offers based on assumptions about their mental health.
The plaintiffs, identified in court documents as Jane Doe and Mary Roe, alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that the county failed to engage in an “interactive process” to explore possible accommodations for them, as required by federal law.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages. A settlement has not been finalized.
Earlier this month, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Barbara Scheper rejected the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and instead granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.
Scheper’s decision was based on overwhelming evidence that the county made no effort to accommodate Jane Doe and Mary Roe, said their attorney, Sean Betouliere of Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit organization based in Berkeley.
“For years, the county has imposed the same boilerplate work restriction on any applicants it wants to disqualify because of a real or perceived mental disability,” Betouliere added. “County employees admitted that when this boilerplate restriction is imposed, no accommodations are considered, no accommodations are discussed, and the decision that no accommodation is possible is made before the county’s legally required ‘interactive process’ meetings with applicants even occur — in blatant violation of its legal obligation to consider possible accommodations in good faith.”
DCFS officials declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit.
“The Department of Children and Family Services employs nearly 9,000 employees who are instrumental in providing family-centered and child-focused protective services in Los Angeles County,” the agency said in a statement. “The department adheres to the Americans with Disabilities Act and the California Fair Employment Housing Act to meet the needs of its employees.”
Jane Doe and Mary Roe are high-achieving graduates of the USC master of social work program, according to the lawsuit. They fully intended to spend their careers serving the county’s most vulnerable children and families, including those who, like themselves, had experienced sexual abuse, assault and other significant traumas, Betouliere said.
While attending USC, the plaintiffs were selected for DCFS’ federally funded trainee program, which provides students with an $18,500 educational stipend for each year of their studies, a supervised internship and, upon graduation, employment as a children’s social worker.
In early 2020, midway through their first year of graduate school, the plaintiffs successfully interviewed with the DCFS, and were offered supervised internships to be followed by permanent employment, according to the lawsuit.
“However, before either plaintiff could begin work, they were each required to undergo a mandatory psychological evaluation, during which the county asked them about previous mental health diagnoses, medications, and treatment; their past experiences of sexual abuse; and other topics with no bearing on plaintiffs’ ability to perform their future jobs,” the suit says.
The evaluations, essentially the same as those used for police officers, are designed to identify and screen out applicants with PTSD, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. They are not administered by any other children’s protective services agency in the United States, according to Betouliere.
As a result of the “unlawful and unnecessary” evaluations, the county rescinded Doe and Roe’s internship and the job offers they had spent years working toward, says the suit.
The county also failed to engage in good-faith discussions to explore accommodations for the plaintiffs, Betouliere said.
Additionally, the county allegedly refused to provide the plaintiffs with copies of their psychological assessments, information about the job duties they believed they could not perform, or the risk they supposedly posed.
Doe said she and Roe asked the county repeatedly to explain what its specific concerns were so that they could try to address them. “The county could easily have addressed any concerns it had — especially since DCFS interns are very closely supervised, and can’t make any decisions about clients on their own — but it made absolutely no effort to do so,” she said in a statement.
Doe and Roe appealed the county’s decision and presented reports from an independent psychologist confirming their ability to safely and effectively perform their duties, the suit states. However, the appeal had no effect and the county upheld its denial of internships and jobs.
The plaintiffs have been unable to pursue other internships because they were contractually committed to DCFS.
In a statement, the county’s appeal process was time-consuming and its promise to consider accommodations was false, Roe said.
“Its so-called interactive process was a sham from beginning to end,” she said. “We are so gratified that the court recognized that, and we see this as a major step toward ensuring that other applicants never have to go through what we did.”
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