2021 | Government

County to pursue U.S. Supreme Court review of decade-long job discrimination case

Appeal based on whether county has to pay 10 years of legal fees in case

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Montgomery County plans to file a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review a ruling of decade-long job discrimination case.

The remaining argument is whether the county has to pay the legal fees for an employee who sued and won on a discrimination claim, but was not awarded any damages. The case has been going on for 10 years, so the county is concerned that the fees will be substantial.

In 2011, Yasmin Reyazuddin, who is blind, filed a lawsuit alleging the county failed to reasonably accommodate her disability under her employment as a customer service representative for the county’s health department.

When the county consolidated its customer service employees into the MC 311 call center, it did not transfer Reyazuddin because the center’s software wasn’t accessible to blind people. She was instead offered alternative jobs, but she was interested in working in the center.

Reyazuddin filed the lawsuit under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. She sought declaratory and injunctive relief, in addition to compensatory damages.

When the case went to trial, a jury found that the county violated the Rehabilitation Act and discriminated against Reyazuddin because the county did not provide reasonable accommodations for her to continue her position.

The jury did not award her any compensatory damages, and the court denied injunctive relief and declaratory judgement. The county offered her a position with the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind, a private nonprofit, before the trial, but she declined it.

According to an opinion written by Judge Albert Diaz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Reyazuddin was eventually transferred to MC 311, but the opinion did not specify when.

When Reyazuddin pursued an award for attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses, the U.S. District Court determined that she was not a “prevailing party” and therefore, did not qualify for the award.

But the U.S. Court of Appeals disagreed and decided Reyazuddin was a prevailing party and could be awarded attorney’s fees.

She is a “prevailing party because she proved her claim to a jury before the County capitulated by transferring her to MC 311,” Diaz wrote. “And that transfer was key to the district court’s subsequent ultimate denial of Reyazuddin’s request for equitable relief.”

Now the county is petitioning the Supreme Court to review the case to determine whether a plaintiff who is not awarded relief from the court can be considered a prevailing party and be awarded attorney’s fees.

On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council unanimously approved a request from county attorney Marc Hansen to approve the appointment of law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (commonly known as WilmerHale) to assist with the review effort.

In a memorandum request for the appointment dated May 4, Hansen wrote that WilmerHale has “significant experience in litigating cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“Although the Office of the County Attorney has extensive appellate experience, the County would benefit from assistance from counsel who have specialized experience with Supreme Court jurisprudence,” he wrote.

Hansen said in a phone interview with Bethesda Beat on Thursday afternoon that the county is preparing its petition. It’s the only option the county has to try to reverse the order to pay attorney’s fees.

Hansen said the county does not officially know how much the attorney’s fees for the case would be, but they would be substantial because the case has lasted 10 years.

“Based on the reports that we have seen, we believe that the claim will be similar to $1.5 [million] and $2 million in attorney’s fees,” he said.

Hansen declined to comment further because of the pending litigation.

“We’re not in the position to give any official statement,” he said.

Joe Espo, an attorney with Baltimore-based law firm Brown Goldstein & Levy — the firm representing Reyazuddin — said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon that he doubts the Supreme Court will take the case.

“There’s nothing sort of new. … I don’t think it’s something the Supreme Court will be choosing to look at — certainly not in this particular case,” he said.

Espo said that if the county files for review, his firm can file in opposition to the request. He said his firm will make that decision after reading the county’s petition for a review.

Espo did not agree that the attorney’s fees would reach millions of dollars, but said it would still be “substantial” given the decade that the case has lasted.

“We had two trials, we’ve had three appeals. It’s been a lot of work done and the fee request will be correspondingly large,” he said, adding that the number would have to be generated from historical records.

If the Supreme Court denies the county’s petition, the case will be remanded to U.S. District Court, where the plaintiff would file for attorney’s fees and the county would file a response, then a judge would decide, Espo said.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.