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The GW Hatchet

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Former Gelman employee sues University

A former senior employee of Gelman Library is suing the University and its head librarian, alleging they discriminated against him for having mental disorders.

Mark Langer, 56, served as head of acquisitions at Gelman Library from 2003 to 2006. He was fired in November, one month after taking his second mental health-related leave of absence in one year, according to documents filed by Langer in federal court.

In the complaint, Langer said he suffers from depression, attention deficit disorder and chronic migraines. Langer said the University unfairly discriminated against him when his conditions worsened, despite receiving encouraging reviews from his superiors only months earlier.

Langer is suing the University and University Librarian Jack Siggins on eight counts, including several that cite the Family Medical Leave Act and the D.C. Human Rights Act. FMLA – a District and federal law – protects employees who need to leave jobs for medical reasons.

“Certainly in this instance, the University does not believe that there was any wrongdoing,” said Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations. Schario said the University does not comment on ongoing litigation, but in court documents the University denied each claim. Siggins declined to comment on the case when reached at his Gelman office. William Howard, interim vice president and general council for the university, also declined to comment.

Jason Ehrenberg, Langer’s attorney, said GW did not handle his client’s case properly.

“I have first hand knowledge – because my father was a vice president at Cornell – that other universities will go out of their way to do anything possible not to fire somebody (in similar circumstances),” Ehrenberg said in a phone interview. “Here, it was just, ‘Screw you. Let’s get somebody else in there who’s not crazy and doesn’t have these problems.'”

As head of acquisitions, Langer said he was responsible for buying new books and subscribing to new periodicals and electronic databases for the library.

In late 2005, he said he started to fall behind in his work and asked Siggins and other library employees as well as the Equal Employment Office to provide him with several accomodations. These included more flexible hours and increased assistance from his staff.

In the complaint, Langer said the University responded by asking him to take short- or long-term disability leave, a type of insurance benefit. He said he declined this offer because he was most likely not eligible for disability leave; he had depression when he arrived in 2003. According to the insurance plan obtained by The Hatchet, employees may not be covered for conditions that existed before employment began.

Several months later, Langer took leave from his position in accordance with FMLA. Langer said when he returned in February 2006, Siggins was openly hostile toward him.

“I knew after taking (FMLA leave) for the first time that this was no longer a personnel problem,” Langer said. “This had become a personal issue on (Siggins’) part.”

Langer said the growing tension in the workplace – as well as an overburdening workload – forced him to take FMLA leave again in September.

In November 2006, after he returned from his second FMLA leave, Langer was called to a meeting in Siggins’ office, where Langer said Siggins told him to resign or be terminated.

The only exhibit in the case is a letter written by Siggins in July 2005, saying Langer had done “substantial and productive work for the Gelman Library.” The letter also reappointed Langer to his position until 2009.

Langer said this shows he was a highly regarded employee, adding that the University did not take traditional steps to help him improve when his work suffered because of his depression.

“Yes, I knew they were dissatisfied. Yes, I knew there was a great possibility of them firing me. But as I said, they have not gone through the traditional – but perhaps not legally required – steps of dismissing me,” Langer said. “It was at this point so personal for (Siggins) that he just wanted me out of his sight.”

Langer said he expected his supervisors to give him deadlines for improvement, rather than fire him suddenly. The complaint asserts that Siggins never participated in an “interactive process” with Langer to negotiate accommodations.

GW’s employee handbook states that employment may be terminated without notice and for any reason. The handbook also states that employees who exhibit poor work performance or habits may be fired if their performance does not improve after a probationary period and “counseling by your supervisor.”

Jennifer Mathis, a lawyer at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said that cases such as this are common, and employers often do not acknowledge depression as a treatable disability.

“There (are) a couple of cases specifically on this point, where people with psychiatric disabilities try to request accommodations and they get booted out the door before they even asked for it,” Mathis said. She added that most of these cases do not make it to trial, but get decided in summary judgment.

GW law professor Peter Smith, an expert in family and medical leave, said the timing of the events do not help the University’s case.

“If I was the University lawyer and the library has come to me, I would have said that the timing would have been enough to create a colorful claim that he was fired for taking leave,” Smith said.

The University filed a motion to dismiss the case but Langer and his attorney have demanded a jury trial.

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