Doe and Roe v. County of Los Angeles
On July 29, 2021, Disability Rights Advocates filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of two participants in Los Angeles County’s federally-funded Master of Social Work Trainee Program, whose internship and employment offers with the County’s Department of Children and Family Services were withdrawn following invasive and unnecessary psychological evaluations. Read the Complaint.
Plaintiffs allege that these evaluations, and the negative employment actions that flowed from them, violate California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”)—which, among other things, prohibits employers from refusing to hire an applicant based on assumptions about their mental disabilities.
Plaintiffs—both recent graduates of the University of Southern California’s prestigious Master of Social Work program—came to the Trainee Program with a deep commitment to helping children and families, a wealth of relevant experience, excellent recommendations and evaluations, and impeccable academic records.
Plaintiff Jane Doe has worked with Los Angeles area parents and youth for years, has extensive experience as a counselor and case manager, and graduated from USC’s MSW program with a 3.93 GPA. Plaintiff Mary Roe, a DACA recipient and the first in her family to go to college, also has years of experience as a counselor and case manager for Los Angeles area youth; she graduated from USC with a GPA of 4.0. However, the County decided—in the face of all of this—that Plaintiffs’ mental health diagnoses disqualified them from the jobs they had worked toward for years.
As attorney Rebecca Sobie explains, “Our clients successfully interviewed with the County’s Department of Children and Family Services, were accepted into the competitive Trainee Program, and were looking forward to successful careers with the County. However, before either one could begin work, the County subjected them to a mandatory psychological evaluation that scrutinized their previous mental health diagnoses, medications, and treatment; their past experiences of sexual abuse; and other highly personal topics with no bearing on their ability to perform the essential duties of their future jobs. Under FEHA, this sort of invasive and irrelevant examination is not allowed.
Worse, following these improper evaluations, the County abruptly rescinded our clients’ job offers and left them scrambling to find alternative employment.
It’s clear that this decision was based on discriminatory assumptions regarding people with a history of mental health diagnoses, and their capabilities, because the County was unable to identify a single specific job duty that our clients supposedly could not perform, or any risk it believed they posed. (In fact, the County did not engage in the legally-required good faith dialogue about its decision at all). FEHA is meant to protect applicants from exactly these sorts of baseless and discriminatory employment decisions.
The negative impact the County’s discrimination has had on Plaintiffs is hard to overstate. As Plaintiff Jane Doe describes:
“Anyone who has worked with me knows I care deeply about children and work hard to protect them. I shaped my entire graduate education around the requirements of the County’s Trainee Program, and when I was accepted into it, I trusted that I would be evaluated on the basis of my work and ability. Instead, the County disregarded everything it knew about my past accomplishments and decided that my mental health diagnosis was the only thing about me that mattered. This was beyond hurtful, and frankly, has derailed my career and shaken my confidence in ways I still have not been able to recover from.
The County should never have withdrawn my job offer based on its false assumptions about what my mental health diagnosis means, and I am committed to making sure this never happens to anyone else.”
In truth, Plaintiffs’ lived experiences of trauma and personal familiarity with mental health issues would have been an asset to the County, not a liability: both women were drawn to a career in social work in part out of a desire to help youth and families with experiences like their own, and this shared experience would likely have enabled them to empathize and build rapport with clients in ways that many other County employees could not.
As Plaintiff Mary Roe states: “I came into the field of social work to be an advocate for survivors of trauma like myself—particularly for those who, like me, identify as undocumented or unauthorized.
I have had a history of traumatic experiences, but those experiences have only strengthened my dedication to serve my community, and they have never gotten in the way of my work. Instead, I have found that they help me connect with families and individuals who have complex traumas – exactly the population that the Department of Children and Family Services serves.”
Sadly, instead of viewing Plaintiffs’ personal experiences with trauma and mental health conditions as the assets that they are, the County decided—contrary to all evidence—that these experiences disqualified Plaintiffs from the job.
“This week marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and California’s FEHA is even older,” attorney Sean Betouliere notes. “The County’s discrimination against applicants with mental health disabilities violates both of these longstanding laws, and we are committed to making sure that it ends now.”