The Congressional Accountability Act (CAA) extends coverage of several federal labor and employment protections to over 30,000 employees of the legislative branch, including employees of the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Architect of the Capitol. The CAA applies thirteen civil rights, labor, and workplace safety laws to legislative branch employees, including: OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970); Federal Labor Relations Act; federal laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment based on race, sex, color, national origin, disability, pregnancy, genetic discrimination, and age; federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on military service or veterans’ status; federal overtime pay laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act; and the right to family medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. The CAA does not extend protections for whistleblower reprisal to legislative branch employees. However, employees may still be able to bring claims if they have been retaliated against for activity protected under other provisions of the CAA, such as reporting a health and safety violation, raising a claim of discrimination, objecting to sexual harassment, requesting accommodations for disabilities, or requesting or taking FMLA leave.
The Congressional Office of Compliance (OOC) is an independent office charged with administering and enforcing the CAA. In order to pursue a claim under many of the provisions of the CAA, including claims of discrimination or harassment, employees must go through a mandatory multi-stage dispute resolution process through the Office of Compliance. Employees do have the right to designate a representative at any time during the process. The procedures for pursuing claims under the CAA can often be convoluted and confusing.
In general, legislative branch employees must initiate a claim under the CAA by filing a written request for counseling with the OOC within 180 days of the violation. The OOC will then conduct a formal 30-day counseling period, where an OOC counselor will discuss the claim and inform the employee of rights under the law. It is important that during the counseling phase, the employee or applicant identify each event and action the agency took which was discriminatory or retaliatory.
If the employee wants to continue with his or her claim after the end of the counseling period, the next stage in complaint processing is a mandatory 30-day mediation period. The complainant must file a written request for mediation within 15 calendar days of receiving notification that the counseling period has ended. The complainant must ensure that the OOC receives the written request on or before the 15th day, before 5:00p.m. Eastern Time. A complainant should file in such a way that he or she can prove timely filing, for example, by hand-delivering the claim and obtaining a copy of the claim stamped as received by the OOC, by certified mail, or via fax with the fax confirmation. In mediation, the OOC will appoint a mediator to meet with the parties, either together or separately, to explore the issues and potential resolutions. While participation in mediation is mandatory under the CAA, mediated settlements are always voluntary – a mediator cannot require either party to agree to a settlement nor can a mediator issue a decision.
If mediation is unsuccessful, a complainant has ninety days to elect one of two options for pursing their claim: requesting an administrative hearing before a hearing officer or filing a law suit in federal district court.
- Hearing before a hearing officer. Under this path, the complainant will file a formal complaint and the OOC will appoint a neutral hearing officer. The complainant can be represented by an attorney, request to engage in discovery (e.g., demand documents, data and evidence and can force federal employees to participate depositions), and present evidence and testimony at a hearing. The process moves relatively swiftly – a hearing officer will normally open a hearing within 60 days after a complaint is filed and will issue a decision within 90 days after a hearing is complete. The hearing officer will issue a decision on whether the employing office discriminated or retaliated against the complainant and, if so, what relief is appropriate. Once the hearing officer issues a decision, either the complainant or the employing office has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Board of Directors of the OOC. The Board’s review is limited and does not include reweighing of the evidence or making factual findings. If the employee or employing office is not satisfied with the Board’s decision, they can file a limited appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
- Federal court law suit. The other option is to file a complaint in federal court. In most cases the complainant may demand a jury trial. Once a complainant chooses to pursue his or her claims in court, she or he may no longer seek a hearing before a hearing officer. The relief available in court is the same as the relief available through a hearing examiner.
Our attorneys have invaluable experience representing legislative branch employees and unions in claims under the CAA, including claims involving discrimination, sexual harassment, overtime pay, FMLA violations, failures to accommodate, unequal pay, arbitrations under Collective Bargaining Agreements, and health and safety violations.
Our goal is to ensure that you have the information you need to make effective, well-informed decisions about how to protect and enforce your rights. We can talk with you about your unique situation and evaluate whether you have a viable claim under the CAA. We can recommend strategies for presenting the most important evidence. We will evaluate the value of your case and what you might recover if you are successful in your claims. Our attorneys are committed to giving you information and tools to make a strong case and smart decisions.
If you are a legislative branch employee and think you have been discriminated against by your employing office, contact us.