Pew Research Center data found that 42% of women in the United States have suffered discrimination in the workplace on the basis of their gender. Although there are statutory frameworks in place prohibiting such discrimination, the threat of retaliation can make it exceedingly difficult for employees who are already experiencing discrimination and harassment to come forward as whistleblowers under these provisions. On top of the personal and professional risks inherent in whistleblowing, federal employee whistleblowers have been saddled with added burdens by the statutory framework: in addition to proving her substantive claims, a federal whistleblower of sex discrimination is required to demonstrate that she has exhausted certain administrative remedies before she can be heard by a jury of her peers. Because workplace discrimination disproportionally affects women, ensuring expansive and effective whistleblower protections and remedies, particularly for women in federal employment, is undoubtedly a women’s rights issue. To celebrate Women's History Month, this article highlights just a few of the remarkable women who have come forward as whistleblowers within this framework to make enormous strides in preserving, enforcing, and expanding crucial protections for future generations of women in the federal workplace.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“CRA”) prohibits discrimination by private employers based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, and further prohibits retaliation by forbidding discrimination against an employee who has “made a charge, testified, assisted, or participated in” a Title VII proceeding or investigation. In 1972, the Equal Opportunity Act (“EOA”) expanded Title VII’s coverage to include certain categories of federal employees, providing that all personnel actions taken in regard to these employees “shall be made free from any discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Many courts have interpreted the EOA to extend both the anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation provisions of the CRA to federal employees. However, in a report on whistleblowing conducted by Senator Patrick Leahy in 1978, it was noted that although some interpretations of the existing statutory framework had been generous to whistleblowers, many courts were still “reluctant to play a role in the whistleblower problem”
Thus, the Civil Service Reform Act (“CSRA”) was passed in an attempt to cement protections for federal whistleblowers, creating an office within the Merit Protections Board (“MSPB”) to bring retaliation claims on behalf of whistleblowers. However, by 1989 not a single corrective action had been brought on behalf of whistleblowers to the MSPB, which was seen as largely ineffectual. In 1989, the Whistleblower Protection Act was passed, which for the first time created an individual right of action for federal employee whistleblowers. As the law currently stands, a federal employee whistleblower may bring a discrimination claim that would have been appealable to the MSPB as a civil action in federal court after the relevant administrative agency has failed to take action for a certain amount of time.
While this statutory framework provides critical tools for female whistleblowers to come forward and expose sex discrimination in the workplace, the accessibility of these tools remains particularly limited for federal employees who are required to go through the MSPB’s arduous administrative procedures before being heard in federal court, all the while often suffering continued discrimination and harassment at work. Thus, the real thrust of the work to protect female whistleblowers has been accomplished not by the provisions of the law but by those individual women brave enough to come forward and fight extensive legal battles to enforce, cement, and expand those provisions.
The Right to a Jury Trial for Federal Whistleblowers
Among the shortcomings of the statutory framework seeking to protect whistleblowers of sex discrimination in the federal workplace is an ambiguity in the scope of the individual right of action. The text of the statute explicitly gives the district court jurisdiction over discrimination claims arising under, inter alia, the Civil Rights Act. Therefore, it remains unclear whether a “mixed case”– which includes both discrimination claims and related non-discrimination retaliation claims – must remain within agency jurisdiction, or whether the entire mixed case, including the whistleblower retaliation claims, can be heard by a federal jury. This crucial gap in the legislation has been directly remedied by individual female whistleblowers.
In 1999, Dr. Duane Bonds was serving as Deputy Chief of the Sickle Cell Disease Branch of the Division of Blood Diseases and Resources within the NIH, where she was a highly prominent medical researcher. Throughout her employment, Dr. Bonds experienced repeated sexual harassment at the hands of her male supervisor. In retaliation for reporting the harassment to the EEOC, Dr. Bonds was removed from her position and demoted. In her new position, Dr. Bonds discovered that human DNA had been improperly used in NIH projects. She escalated these concerns over the objections of her supervisor, who retaliated by submitting negative performance reviews which caused her removal from the project. Dr. Bonds again filed a complaint with the EEOC in 2005, alleging that the removal constituted unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Throughout the complaint and investigation process, Dr. Bonds experienced continued sex discrimination and harassment in her workplace and was ultimately terminated in 2006. Dr. Bonds initiated a final EEOC complaint in 2007, detailing the extensive discrimination and whistleblower retaliation she had experienced. With no administrative action taken within the statutorily determined time frame, Bonds filed her case with the District Court.
Because it included both discrimination and claims of retaliation for protected whistleblowing activity, Bonds’ case was considered a “mixed case,” and the district court struggled with the question of jurisdiction under the CSRA, ultimately dismissing the claims citing failure to exhaust administrative remedies. In her appeal to the 4th Circuit, Dr. Bonds argued that mixed cases like hers must be treated as a single unit and heard in combination in either an administrative proceeding or in federal court. The 4th Circuit agreed, granting Bonds and other whistleblowers in her situation the right to a federal jury trial, on both her CSRA discrimination and WPA retaliation claims.
In determining this jurisdictional question, the 4th Circuit cited to a D.C. Circuit case which held in favor of another female whistleblower bringing both discrimination and retaliation claims. In this case, Kiki Ikossi – an electrical engineer at the Navy Research Lab – suffered continuous discrimination by her employer on the basis of age, gender, and national origin, stunting her career progression. Dr. Ikossi fought the misconduct in federal court, where the D.C. Circuit found that interpreting the law to require a whistleblower’s retaliation claims to be held up in administrative proceedings would be adverse to Congress’ intent to have discrimination and retaliation claims settled “expeditiously.” The Court noted that the regulatory structure surrounding mixed cases had become “extremely complicated,” and that access to a judicial forum for complainants of sexual discrimination in the federal workplace was critical to the legislative purpose, otherwise such claims would “languish undecided in the administrative machinery.”
The decisions on mixed case jurisdiction secured by Dr. Ikossi and Dr. Bonds have been cited by numerous other circuit courts, further expanding protections for federal employee whistleblowers facing sex discrimination in the workplace. On the basis of this precedent, Bunny Greenhouse – a high ranking official at the Army Corps of Engineers who discovered and exposed egregious contracting fraud by the Department of Defense – was able to take her case of whistleblower retaliation to federal court in the District of Columbia. Under pressure of a federal trial, the Army agreed to settle the case for nearly $1 million in restitution. After the settlement, Ms. Greenhouse made an impassioned statement: “I hope that the plight I suffered prompts the Administration and Congress to move dedicated civil servants from second-class citizenry and to finally give federal employees the legal rights that they need to protect the public trust.”
Among many other female whistleblowers who have helped to shape the law as it stands today, Dr. Ikossi, Dr. Bonds, and Ms. Greenhouse’s lengthy legal battles paved the way for future whistleblowers of gender discrimination to have their claims heard by a federal jury of peers rather than a politically appointed federal agency. The whistleblowing community is indebted to these women who were willing to take significant personal, professional, and financial risks to expose sex discrimination in the workplace, and to ensure future whistleblowers remain protected.