- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

A D.C. jury has awarded $3 million to a disabled federal employee who said the U.S. Department of Commerce did not take reasonable steps to let her telecommute.

Lisa Bremer has multiple sclerosis — a disease that affects the nervous system and, in her case, prevents her from walking. She telecommuted two days a week as a lawyer in the Commerce Department until February 2002, when her job duties changed and the department said she had to be in the office full time.

Ms. Bremer and her doctors said she could not comply. She retired on federal disability in April 2003.

“I’m disabled, but as an attorney, I sat at a desk,” Ms. Bremer said. “I wasn’t disabled at my job. … My ability to walk did not impact my ability to be a good lawyer.”

She filed suit against the federal government claiming the Commerce Department did not make reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act to allow her to telecommute. The $3 million awarded last week will be reduced to $300,000 under the Rehabilitation Act, the 1973 predecessor of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which places a cap on compensatory awards.

The U.S. attorney’s office did not return calls seeking comment.

Ms. Bremer began her career in the Commerce Department in 1987 and was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis three years later. In 1991, she began a flexible work schedule under her physician’s recommendation. Her condition worsened until 2002, when she began to rely on a wheelchair.

She worked on Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the Economic Development Administration’s chief counsel office. By 1999, she had sole authority to deny FOIA requests in the administration.

In February 2002, she was assigned to the administration’s financial liquidation division.

“They said because of the volume of files I had to come to the office five days a week and it could not be done from home,” Ms. Bremer said.

Ms. Bremer said a telecommuting schedule could have been arranged.

“I couldn’t believe what happened to me,” she said. “I had a 15-year career. I had worked with the disease for all these years. I was an outstanding employee. When the accommodations were withdrawn, it ended my career.”

Ms. Bremer hopes the verdict will give confidence to other disabled employees.

“She went forward as a matter of principle and standing up for the right of disabled employees,” said her attorney, Joseph Kaplan of Passman & Kaplan PC in the District.

The U.S. government has been pushing to allow federal employees opportunities to telecommute since 2001. Last year, Congress withheld $5 million in spending from agencies that weren’t doing enough to promote telecommuting. The Commerce Department was not one of those agencies.

The number of federal employees whose jobs are conducive to telecommuting rose to 43 percent from 2002 to 2003, according to the Office of Personnel Management, which organizes federal telecommuting initiatives. Although 750,000 employees were able to telecommute in 2003, only about 103,000 did so.

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