Susan Cohen spent two decades trying to keep hundreds of disabled and elderly residents in Montgomery County self-sufficient and out of nursing homes or assisted-living centers.
As a county social worker since 1979, Cohen visited clients to make sure they were receiving proper nutrition, paying their bills, getting exercise and finding jobs if they were able to work.
But after learning in 1998 that she had multiple sclerosis, she became the one who needed help from her employer, Montgomery's Aging and Disability Services. She needed a desk job.
"It was devastating to me, but I thought I was going to use my condition to help the county do an even better job of helping the disabled," said Cohen, 59.
Instead, what followed has been years of legal skirmishes between Cohen and the county government. In a lawsuit filed in 2001, she claims that county administrators mistreated her and jeopardized her health by not giving her a less-strenuous job quickly enough -- an allegation the county denies.
The lawsuit has caught the attention of AARP, whose attorneys are joining Cohen's attorney before a Montgomery County jury this week to argue that an agency designed to protect disabled persons violated local and federal anti-discrimination laws.
"The Aging and Disability Services agency should be a model in terms of enforcing and complying with disability bias law, and to the extent a jury finds otherwise, this will be an important and very serious conclusion," said Daniel B. Kohrman, an AARP lawyer.
Montgomery officials say they are confident the jury will conclude that the county did not treat Cohen unlawfully.
"She was being accommodated through this whole period of time," said Associate County Attorney Sharon V. Burrell. "She never lost a day's pay. She was never asked to retire. She was never asked to go part time. She did not suffer in any kind of way."
Burrell will face formidable opposition. In addition to Kohrman, Cohen's legal team includes Kerry Alan Scanlon, a former head of the U.S. Justice Department's Disability Rights Section.
Cohen's attorneys plan to argue that her former supervisors violated a county civil rights law because they took about 17 months to find her a suitable desk job. The law is a version of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against a disabled person. The employer must make "reasonable accommodations" to allow the person to continue working, Burrell said.
The dispute began after Cohen became increasingly exhausted while performing home visits and asked to be moved to a desk job in October 1998. According to Kohrman and court documents, the county refused to reassign her until February 2000, after she hired an attorney and filed a complaint with the county's Human Relations Commission.
Multiple sclerosis is a disease that attacks the nervous system. Cohen said her legs would weaken, her arms would twitch and her vision would begin to blur after she stood for prolonged periods.
Burrell disputes Cohen's version of events, and she plans to tell the jury that the county went out of its way to make Cohen's job less strenuous.
Upon learning of her disability, Burrell said, Cohen's supervisors reduced her caseload, sent her on assignments with other caseworkers and paid for her to take taxis instead of having to drive.
The county offered Cohen a desk job in October 1999, but she declined to take it because she said her illness made it difficult for her to use a computer, Burrell said. The county then created a full-time position for Cohen, where she could sit at a desk, in February 2000.
Cohen sued the county in August 2001, alleging that it took too long to find her a suitable desk job.
The next month, Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Nelson W. Rupp tossed out the suit because, according to court documents, Cohen had already been reassigned to a desk job.
Cohen appealed to the state Court of Special Appeals, which in 2003 ruled in her favor. The appeals court sent the case back to a lower court and, according to the AARP, effectively set a legal standard requiring employers in Maryland to act quickly when disabled employees request a modified assignment.
"The principle issue before us is whether an accommodation for a disabled employee is reasonable if it [is] granted after an unreasonable delay," the court wrote in its opinion. "In other words, is an accommodation delayed an accommodation denied?"
The trial, which will begin today in Montgomery County Circuit Court, is expected to last up to a week. Cohen -- who still works for the county Department of Health and Human Services, which includes Aging and Disability Services -- is seeking a nonspecific monetary award and a judgment directing the county to not discriminate against her.
"If the county cannot abide by the [Americans With Disabilities Act], then there is no hope anyone can," Cohen said. "I want to hold them accountable."