Ex-Senate Gallery Worker’s Suit Faces Setback

Posted July 3, 2003 at 5:16pm

A federal judge dealt a blow last week to a former Senate Radio-TV Gallery employee in her racial discrimination lawsuit against the Sergeant-at-Arms, denying a motion for a restraining order to block her recent termination.

U.S. District Court Judge Reggie Walton ruled that Gloria Halcomb’s dismissal from the press gallery in May for “misconduct” did not cause her irreparable harm. Even if it did, the judge determined that the court lacks jurisdiction because Halcomb failed to exhaust the administrative remedies available to her under the Congressional Accountability Act in her two-year-old lawsuit.

Halcomb did not return phone calls seeking comment last week.

In court papers, Halcomb claimed that her termination was a direct response to her pending lawsuit against the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms. In her original complaint filed in 2001, she alleged that she was denied opportunities to advance professionally based on race and gender.

The Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 gives legislative branch employees the protection of 11 civil rights, labor and anti-discrimination laws. Among other things, the law prohibits reprisals by an employing office against a covered employee for initiating proceedings under the CAA.

A year ago the district judge offered mixed rulings on the Sergeant-at-Arms motion to dismiss the complaint, ruling that Halcomb had failed to exhaust the statutorily mandated counseling and mediation process prior to filing suit, as required by the CAA, but allowed her leave to file an amended complaint.

In her recent motion for the restraining order, Halcomb claimed that her firing had left her “totally without income and immediately severe[d] from her all pay and benefits which she accumulated over 16 years of employment service.”

But a brief filed by the Senate Employment Counsel on behalf of the Sergeant-at-Arms (which has control over the galleries’ employees) asserts that Halcomb misrepresented her current pay status to the court in June, as her unused leave allowed her to remain on the payroll until July 9.

Citing case law, the Senate’s reply brief stated that the Sergeant-at-Arms “need only articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. … Plaintiff’s employment with the SAA was terminated as a result of her continuing misconduct, including refusing to follow the legitimate instructions of her supervisor, making inappropriate remarks to her supervisor and insubordination.”

Included in an addendum to the brief filed by the Senate Employment Counsel is the termination memo to Halcomb from Senate Radio-TV Gallery Superintendent Larry Janezich dated May, 21, 2003, in which he stated that the firing was based on “continuing misconduct.”

In the memorandum Janezich outlined that he instructed Halcomb to take grammar and time-management courses to “address your long-standing deficiencies in writing and organizational skills,” to which he said Halcomb gave an “insubordinate” response.

The letter goes on to cite another incident in November 2002 in which Janezich said Halcomb refused to complete an assignment he gave her unless she was instructed to do so directly by the Sergeant-at-Arms office.

“On December 11, 2002, you addressed me in a confrontational and disrespectful manner, saying, ‘You’re evil. You’re the devil. Coming in here and having to see you every day is the most disgusting thing in my life.’”

In her March 2003 performance review, which was included with the Sergeant-at-Arms brief, Halcomb received more “needs improvement” marks than “meets standards” and no marks for “exceeds standards.”

In addition, the eight-page annual assessment, which Halcomb refused to sign (writing instead on the signature line: “I will not give you my signature, I do not agree with this evaluation.”), compares her productivity to that of her peers in her daily tasks, including processing credential applications and taking gallery studio reservations. For the latter task, the review said she completed 125 in the previous year while her colleagues took an average of 257.5.

“The average number of studio slips filled out by a gallery staff between March 1, 2002 and March 1, 2003 was 115. This employee filled out 3 (three),” Janezich wrote.

But Janezich hasn’t escaped the incident without upsetting some members of the gallery, including NBC News reporter Joe Johns, chairman of the executive committee of the House and Senate broadcast galleries. Johns chastised Janezich for firing Halcomb and was particularly irate about the fact that Janezich used gallery stationery — with the names of the executive committee on the letterhead — to fire her, as Roll Call reported last month.

In her motion, Halcomb asserted that Janezich fired her in May because he assumed she “either led or participated in informing members of the Correspondent’s Board … about dysfunctional and unworkable conditions in the Gallery.”

(Members of the press gallery elect correspondents to an executive committee which administers the gallery, but the board has no formal authority to discharge or manage the Sergeant-at-Arms employees who work in the gallery.)

Halcomb has also had difficulties with her representation and, at least as of the end of June, was without counsel. The judge recently granted her motion to remove Johnny Barnes as her attorney. Barnes didn’t return several calls for comment.

The exact nature of the dispute between the two is unclear. Court documents reveal that Barnes failed to appear for a status hearing last August and Halcomb terminated their retainer agreement last month.

In her letter to Barnes, filed in court documents, Halcomb revealed that on her own, she filed a petition for reinstatement of employment with the Sergeant-at-Arms a week after she was fired “after you were unreachable, and later unable to suggest an appropriate response to the Termination action.”

“In response to my request for your immediate attention to my case you have reiterated you desire that you be released from the retainer agreement, and that you no longer wish to represent me …, your stated reason for this request was inability to provide you with a immediate payment of [$]10,000.00,” funds Halcomb says she doesn’t have. She told Barnes she has paid him $2,500 and spent an additional $3,000 on other firms.