Feds side with Pasadena woman; State agency must pay its blind ex-worker back wages, damages

The Houston Chronicle
May 17, 1997, Saturday, 3 STAR Edition, SECTION: a; Pg. 34

The Texas Commission for the Blind must pay a blind Pasadena woman back wages and compensatory damages after the U.S. Justice Department concluded that she had suffered discrimination because of her disability.

In a 25-page report sent to Pat D. Westbrook, executive director of the state commission in Austin, Justice officials also found the commission discriminated against two employees in its San Antonio office.

"Our investigation has revealed that the commission failed to make reasonable accommodations to the known disabilities of individuals, and that it maintains a practice of failing to provide certain employee manuals and information in accessible formats (such as Braille or audiotape)," said the report from Isabelle Katz Pinzler, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Pinzler also said the investigation found that Joanna States of Pasadena suffered harassment, which created a hostile work environment, and that she was unjustly discharged from her job as a receptionist at the commission's Houston office.

Westbrook said late this week that the Texas Attorney General's Office had advised him not to comment.

Ron Dusek, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said his office would respond on behalf of the commission but will not make any public comment.

States, 47, filed a complaint in March 1993.

States, who began working at the commission in August 1988, alleged that her supervisor, Catherine Fontaine, verbally harassed her by criticizing her use of a Braille machine, a cane and a talking clock, which Fontaine called "stupid".

States said Fontaine also expressed concern that she was going to be tripped by States' "stupid cane".

The commission did not categorically deny the comments but said they "were made in a tongue-in-cheek manner or were taken out of context by Ms. States".

"It is not an adequate defense to argue that disability-based insults and comments of the kind experienced by Ms. States, when they create a hostile work environment, were made in a 'tongue-in-cheek' or joking manner", the Justice Department report said.

States also said she was ridiculed by Fontaine for wearing mismatched shoes to work and harassed by Fontaine and other employees for bringing her guide dog to work. She also lodged a complaint that Fontaine restricted her use of a Braille machine that she needed to perform her job.

"While Ms. States complained both to her immediate supervisor and to higher-level supervisors about these matters, the commission either failed or refused to take prompt remedial action", Pinzler said in her report.

States took a leave from her job in June 1992. When she informed Fontaine that she could not return to work until conditions improved, Fontaine and her direct supervisor, Barbara Martinez, took States' statement to be a verbal resignation, according to the Justice report. States has not worked since.

Fontaine could not be reached for comment Friday. Westbrook, the commission's executive director, said Fontaine left the commission several months ago after declining to accept another position.

Justice officials said limiting States' use of a Braille machine "went overboard" and prevented her from fully doing her job.

The Commission for the Blind was ordered to give States back pay and to pay "appropriate compensatory damages" to her and the two San Antonio employees.

Among other things, the commission also must designate an ADA compliance officer to handle complaints of discrimination on the basis of disability and provide training for supervisory employees in all commission offices on the rights and needs of persons with disabilities.

Pinzler said the Justice Department is willing to work with the commission to secure the voluntary compliance. If compliance is not met, the Justice Department may sue the commission under the American with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Copyright 1997 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company

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