Research Notes

How the Social Security Administration paid $30,000 for a $75 space heater for one of its employees

This is a story of how bureaucratic intransigence and, one could say, stupidity resulted in prolonged hardship for a federal employee and unnecessary expense to the U. S. taxpayer.

An employee of the Social Security Administration (SSA) – an administrative judge who renders decisions on Social Security Disability (SSDI) claims – was using a space heater in her cubicle to combat the symptoms of her osteoarthritis. She had permission from her boss, the chief judge, to do so, and this worked fine for about a year. She needed the space heater so her hands would not become stiff and painful, which made it very hard for her to do things like handle documents and concentrate on her work.  Her doctor had even written a note, which her supervisor had been given, saying she needed the space heater because of her osteoarthritis.

Then her boss retired, and a new chief judge arrived on the scene. He noticed our client’s space heater, and soon thereafter in February 2015 he issued a memo saying no one at the office could use a space heater. Our client then showed him the letter from her doctor saying she needed to use it, but he refused to honor it and ordered her to remove the space heater from her office immediately.

Our client filed an employment discrimination complaint based on disability. In response, SSA told her various false and inconsistent things, including:

  1. osteoarthritis is not a disability (even though federal anti-discrimination laws and SSA’s own regulations regarding SSDI claims say the opposite)
  2. space heaters are not allowed per the terms of GSA’s lease of the office space from a private party (even though that private party’s management company provided another lessee with a space heater to use)
  3. her boss has no authority to grant permission to use the space heater
  4. her boss is the only person who could grant permission to use the space heater
  5. her prior boss’s letting her use a space heater was not a “formal” accommodation, so SSA had not withdrawn a prior reasonable accommodation
  6. use of a space heater is against SSA policy (even though that policy had an exception for reasonable accommodations), and
  7. she should try other ways to keep warm such as wearing gloves (have you ever tried typing with gloves on?)

This month, our office settled the discrimination complaint.  The basic terms of the settlement were that SSA would provide our client with a space heater (which cost SSA $75) as a reasonable accommodation to her disability, would pay her $15,000 for her pain and suffering for having to work in pain for over a year and a half without a space heater, and would pay $15,000 in reasonable attorney fees.

We found it frankly baffling and quite ironic that a chief administrative judge who himself was a disability expert would take the inexplicable position that osteoarthritis “is not a disability” and therefore our client was not entitled to protection, including the right to reasonable accommodation, under the anti-discrimination laws. We found it discouraging that the attorney representing SSA went along with this nonsense for over year before offering a reasonable settlement, making various excuses like how long it would take to get authority to settle from someone high enough in the SSA’s chain of command.

Even more confusing was the fact that SSA had already fought this battle (a space heater as a reasonable accommodation) in two other cases and lost – cases we cited to SSA’s attorney months before the settlement. Meanwhile, litigation costs and our client’s frustration mounted.

Moral of the story — Never underestimate the lengths to which some bureaucrats will go to obfuscate issues and defy logic in attempting to justify a wrong-headed decision.

NOTE: ECAB recently ruled that OWCP has not been making consistent decisions in awarding permanent disability ratings under FECA on arm impairments, and has ordered OWCP to revise its procedures to do so.  See T.H. and USPS, ECAB Docket No. 14-0943 (11/25/16).

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