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Bureau of Prisons Pays $145,000 to Settle Handicap Discrimination Lawsuit

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), through the United States Attorney General's Office, agreed to pay a total of $145,000 to settle a 1998 lawsuit brought by a BOP employee who alleged she was discriminated against on the basis of her disability. The settlement amount represented $90,000 in compensation and back pay to the employee, plus $55,000 for attorney's fees. The case in now being reported by PLN after a longstanding Freedom of Information Act request was recently fulfilled by the federal government.

The employee, Marilyn J. Welch, was hired in 1977 as an Accounting Technician at the Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan (FCI-Milan). Welch, who is legally handicapped under the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. Sect. 794, due to her "degenerative disk disease" in her lower back, arthritis in her knees, and a cataract, sought and received an exemption from mandatory firearms training through 1995. Each year, Welch was required to get an updated doctor's note to excuse her from the training.

In 1995, however, Welch's supervisors said the doctor's note was no longer good enough and directed her to see the prison's own doctor for evaluation, or attend the firearms training. After a year's worth of back and forth and being fearful of losing her job, Welch agreed to the firearms training on the condition that she could wear a knee brace. During the training, Welch injured her back, missed work due to the injury, and began receiving disability pension payments.

Welch was then issued a letter threatening her with termination due to her physical limitations. Welch, whose job as an accountant was described in the BOP manual as "mostly sedentary," filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging workplace discrimination in violation of 29 U.S.C. Sect. 794. After the EEOC remanded the case to the BOP with orders to reprocess Welch's complaint, the BOP took no action and Welch sued.

The 1998 lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, claimed that the BOP failed to make reasonable accommodations for Welch's handicap, and treated her differently than other non-handicapped employees. The suit sought back pay, future pay, punitive damages, damages for emotional distress, and attorney's fees and costs.

Although the lawsuit indicates Welch was not terminated from BOP employment it did allege that the "intolerable working conditions" would make it "extremely difficult for Welch to resume her employment the Agency."

The undated settlement agreement was approved by U.S. District Judge Corbett O'Meara, and awarded Welch $70,000 for back pay, $20,000 in compensatory damages, and $55,000 in attorney's fees. The BOP admitted to no wrongdoing or liability. See: Welch v. Reno, Case No. 98-738-10 (U.S.D.C. S.D. MI).

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Related legal case

Welch v. Reno