Congress

Architect of the Capitol finds itself in court over discrimination cases

Court rules that second discrimination case can go forward

Acting Architect of the Capitol Christine Merdon. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Architect of the Capitol finds itself under fire for alleged discrimination, and could be headed to messy federal court fights over the matter.

A federal appeals court has ruled that a reasonable jury could agree with an AOC employee that he was discriminated against for his national origin when he was denied promotions in 2014 and 2015.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on July 2 reversed a district court decision to grant summary judgement to the AOC in the case brought by Sunday Iyoha, who alleges a hiring manager discriminated against him for his foreign accent and against other employees who don’t speak English as a first language. This is a contention Iyoha alleges played a role in him being denied two promotions.

The ruling came shortly after the same court decided another employee discrimination case against the Architect of the Capitol, involving Javier Mayorga, can proceed to trial at the district court level. That case involves allegations that two white employees made fun of Mayorga’s first name. Mayorga was also denied a promotion.

“Yeah, the place has been rife with discrimination in about any category that you can think of,” said Les Alderman, the attorney who argued Iyoha’s case and has experience bringing similar employment matters involving the Architect of the Capitol.

The Architect of the Capitol did not respond to a requests for comment.

Iyoha was born in Lagos, Nigeria and grew up speaking Eshan, but later learned English in primary school and moved to the U.S. in 1995 at the age of 29. He started working in the Architect of the Capitol’s Information Technology Division in 2008, the court filing stated.

Shortly after becoming the Architect of the Capitol’s chief information officer, Jay Wiegmann stopped taking in-person briefings from Iyoha and allegedly told his staff at a meeting that he was glad Iyoha started communicating with him through email because he could not understand Iyoha’s foreign accent when he talked, according to the court.

The court also noted that an employee testified that Wiegmann commented multiple times about communication problems purportedly caused by employees who “don’t speak English as their first language.”

Further, the court said when someone raised a concern about such comments, Wiegmann replied, “So sue me. We can’t have people like that as our first-line communicators.” Wiegmann denies making these statements and others about people with foreign accents.

In October 2012, Iyoha was reassigned to a different branch as part of a larger realignment that removed other employees with foreign accents from jobs that involved customer-facing duties, the court filing stated.

Iyoha filed a complaint with the Office of Compliance alleging that he was reassigned because of bias against people with foreign accents and the AOC was ordered to pay him $30,000 in damages, the court said.

Wiegmann was not disciplined and his comments about Iyoha’s accent continued in 2014, according to the court.

When the Architect of the Capitol invited applications in 2014 for the branch chief position of the production management branch (it had been vacant since the 2012 realignment when an employee with a foreign accent was removed from the position), Iyoha and 75 other candidates applied.

According to the court, Iyoha was among 10 selected to interview by Angela Clark, the deputy chief information officer. She told Wiegmann that she would not have picked Iyoha for an interview if it hadn’t been for an agency policy that required her to interview all internal candidates when fewer than five apply, as was the case with Iyoha.

Clark and Wiegmann were part of the four-person team that interviewed Iyoha and they rated him low among the candidates, according to the court filing.

After he didn’t get the job, Iyoha filed a complaint in district court alleging he wasn’t selected based on his national origin. The person who was offered — and took the job — is from Taiwan and speaks English with an accent, but resigned after 10 months in the post, according to the court filing.

When the position became vacant again, Iyoha applied and ended up not getting the job. This interview process had a second round added by Clark, which the court said might have changed the interview process in a way that disadvantaged a candidate with a foreign accent, the court said.

The case is now slated to go to trial at the district court level. Iyoha’s attorney said that the case underscores a long list of discrimination issues running through the Architect of the Capitol.

“If you look at this particular case, it highlights the environment at the Architect that allows discrimination to thrive,” Alderman said. “The same high-level managers were guilty of discriminating against Mr. Iyoha in 2012, but the Architect took no corrective action against them at all which left them free to discriminate against Mr. Iyoha and others in future years, which is exactly what happened here.”

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