Capitol Police sex discrimination lawsuit proceeds with retaliation claim

Officer Mauricia Van Meter was dismissed from K-9 training program in October 2017 despite completing required tests to continue

A Capitol Police officer dressed as a construction worker runs a K9 maintenance drill with a police dog and hidden tennis ball on the East Front of the Capitol on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (CQ Roll Call)
A Capitol Police officer dressed as a construction worker runs a K9 maintenance drill with a police dog and hidden tennis ball on the East Front of the Capitol on Thursday, April 16, 2020. (CQ Roll Call)
Posted June 4, 2020 at 11:39am

A lawsuit involving a female Capitol Police officer who says she was dismissed from the department’s K-9 unit training course because of her sex and disability will proceed with a retaliation claim as well, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson denied the Capitol Police’s request to dismiss the retaliation claim on May 30, calling the allegation of retaliation “plausible.”

Les Alderman, an attorney for the female officer, Mauricia Van Meter, applauded Jackson’s decision.

“We’re happy that the case can now advance, and we’re happy that Officer Van Meter can now explore all of the possible motivations behind her removal from the K-9 training course,” Alderman told CQ Roll Call.

Van Meter, a veteran officer, alleges that her training supervisor, Sgt. Anthony Phelps, said — during the third week of the 14-week training program — that he would fail her. Phelps dismissed Van Meter from the program in week 11, despite her completing the required tests to continue. Van Meter was the sole female candidate in her training program, which began in August 2017 and consisted of four new K-9 officer candidates. Phelps did not tell the male officers he would fail them, according to the lawsuit.

The K-9 program trains officers to work with specially bred and trained dogs to detect explosives at the Capitol complex.

At the start of the training course, Phelps said two of the eight dogs available were too big for Van Meter to handle. Phelps assigned Van Meter a dog whose prospect of successfully completing training was “in doubt,” the lawsuit alleges.

After Phelps told Van Meter he would fail her, Phelps’ supervisor emailed him to counsel his staff because he had heard of a threat to fail Van Meter from the program, the lawsuit says.

The Capitol Police argued that the retaliation claim shouldn’t be included because Van Meter did not allege she engaged in a protected activity under the Congressional Accountability Act. Van Meter never complained about Phelps, but noted that Phelps “perceived her as having engaged in a protected activity” because Phelps believed Van Meter complained to his supervisor about his discriminatory conduct. This led Jackson, the judge, to find that the allegations were sufficient to support a plausible claim for retaliation.

Even after Van Meter told Phelps she suffered from an anxiety disability, he “derided” and “belittled” her, the lawsuit alleges.

Van Meter was dismissed from the K-9 training program in October 2017. She then complained to an assistant chief and had her attorney contact the department’s general counsel on the matter. Shortly after, Phelps was transferred from the K-9 training division to another post and subsequently left the Capitol Police.

Eva Malecki, a Capitol Police spokesperson, did not respond to a request for comment.

Jackson has experience presiding over sex discrimination cases involving USCP officers. Last fall, a jury in Jackson’s courtroom found that fired Capitol Police Officer Chrisavgi Sourgoutsis’ gender was a motivating factor in her dismissal, but the force still would have terminated her.