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Lawsuit alleges Booz Allen employee lost job over remote work for migraines

In a federal lawsuit, the worker said she faced discrimination and retaliation for asking to work from home up to 6 to 8 days a month for migraines

A former Booz Allen Hamilton employee is suing the company in federal court, alleging she faced discrimination and retaliation for seeking disability accommodations for migraines. (iStock)
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A former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton is suing the consulting firm, alleging she faced discrimination and retaliation for asking to work from home up to six to eight days a month to make her migraine attacks more bearable.

In a complaint filed Monday in the Eastern District of Virginia, lawyers for Deirdre Cosmann argued that the company had breached the Americans With Disabilities Act by denying her remote work and terminating her in April 2020 — amid a companywide layoff freeze during the pandemic.

“No employee should have been fired due to their need to occasionally telework for a disability at a time when everyone in the company was teleworking due to COVID-19,” said Lenore Garon, one of Cosmann’s lawyers, alleging the company “actively penalized and targeted Ms. Cosmann for her disability.”

A spokesperson for Booz Allen Hamilton told The Washington Post that, although the company can’t comment on pending litigation, “Booz Allen remains committed to fair and equitable treatment for all employees and operates in strict compliance with its Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Policy and applicable laws.”

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The case illuminates the challenges employees with migraines can face in navigating the workplace, according to the American Migraine Foundation, an advocacy group.

“Migraine is a major reason for lost productivity in the workplace,” said Lawrence Newman, the chair of the foundation.

Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from migraine attacks than men, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The patient living with migraine goes to work when they don’t feel well because they don’t have any options, and when they are there, they are often met with unsupportive co-workers or managers,” Newman said. “This can set up a vicious cycle in which the person loses confidence, incurs stress, is stigmatized and becomes more disabled.”

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Cosmann, 42, had worked for Booz Allen Hamilton for over a decade when she was terminated after a lengthy battle to renew a disability accommodation she had in place since 2013, the complaint says.

She told The Post that she had been “really transparent” with Booz Allen Hamilton ever since she was first diagnosed with migraines in 2013. Her attacks could drag on for days. Several times a month she found herself fighting off pain, nausea and vertigo that were worsened by the lighting and sounds of the office.

“When you do have a migraine everything is amplified,” Cosmann said. “Being in a low-lit environment helps significantly. If I was able to telework and control the environment I was able to work through it.”

She had just started consulting on a major government project in June 2019 when she went to her new manager at Booz Allen Hamilton and asked to continue working remotely up to six to eight days a month to help manage her migraines, according to the complaint.

The manager told her “that it would be ‘bad optics’ for the client to have an employee not physically present in the office,” the complaint states. Cosmann went to the client, who was “very sympathetic” and approved her request for occasional remote work, but her manager remained unmoved, according to the complaint.

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Cosmann was told she would have to use sick leave if she had a migraine, even though she was capable of performing her duties from home, the complaint states.

“The Job Manager expressed the sentiment that when employees are teleworking, they are not truly working,” the complaint states.

In July 2019, Cosmann filed a renewed reasonable accommodation request, as she had done twice before. The company waited months to respond, then said it “inadvertently” closed her case, according to the complaint. In October 2019, she was told she’d been granted just two to three days of remote work per month.

“The level of energy and effort I had to expend just to legitimize my telework to accommodate my migraines was mountainous at times,” Cosmann told The Post. “It was distracting to have that as a backdrop when I was just trying to do my job.”

Michal Shinnar, senior counsel at Joseph Greenwald & Laake and another lawyer for Cosmann, said that employers often misunderstand their legal obligations by the ADA. The core principle is that if someone can do the core parts of their job with a reasonable accommodation, they’re qualified for that job, Shinnar said.

“They think that if they have a preference for how a job would be done that that means they don’t have to let someone do it a different way, even if they need to do it a different way because of their disability,” Shinnar said.

The law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for requesting reasonable accommodations or for calling out violations of the ADA, Shinnar explained.

“If your employee requests accommodations you can’t start treating them worse, but what happened to Ms. Cosmann was that she was being treated worse than other people without disabilities,” Shinnar said. “She was being scrutinized, and the more she complained, the worse things got.”

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The stress of fighting for her accommodations exacerbated her migraines, Cosmann said. On the rare days she was permitted to telework, the manager required her to submit “minute-by-minute activity logs,” the complaint states. Her manager started “berating” her in front of colleagues and clients. She scrutinized Cosmann’s time cards, alleging she “couldn’t or shouldn’t have spent certain amounts of time on specific projects.”

“In some instances, Ms. Cosmann gave up on convincing the Job Manager that she had worked the hours she said she worked, and instead agreed to convert portions of her time card to be classified as Paid Time Off,” the complaint reads.

Cosmann said she faced further retaliation after reaching out to HR and higher-ranking managers about the mistreatment. She was removed from her project in December 2019, the complaint states. Booz Allen Hamilton requires consultants to be actively working on billable projects or risk termination. Cosmann said she applied for new projects but was not given approval to work on any “onsite” contracts because of her need for occasional telework.

Even after the pandemic forced Booz Allen Hamilton to shift entirely to remote work, the company did not change its position.

“If the client wants you there five days a week, it’s five days a week,” she was told by a principal at Booz Allen in April 2020, according to the complaint. “There’s no accommodations.”

Cosmann was terminated on April 21, 2020, even though the company had said it wouldn’t lay off employees or reduce their hours through July 2020, according to the complaint.

“They took me out to pasture,” Cosmann said. “That’s what it looked like and that’s what it felt like.”