A federal jury in Virginia found that a woman who works at a government defense agency was retaliated against for complaining of gender discrimination but awarded her only $1 in damages.
Patricia Burke went to trial in Alexandria federal court to demand compensation for emotional distress she said she suffered working in the counterintelligence division at the Defense Security Service.
Although jurors on Wednesday agreed that she was subjected to a hostile work environment, they did not think she deserved serious financial compensation for that experience.
The trial was a rare civil challenge to the Department of Defense, as most such cases end in settlements.
Burke, a field support analyst, testified that her issues began when she returned from maternity leave and was unable to get a schedule that would let her stay home with her newborn on Wednesdays — a day she previously had not been scheduled to work. She filed a complaint.
After that, she said, she was ostracized, isolated and given busy work.
A former supervisor and other co-workers corroborated that account, saying Burke was snubbed in the office and assigned pointless tasks.
Her supervisors denied any such retaliation, testifying that they bent over backwards to accommodate a difficult employee’s demands.
In fact, her bosses said that several times, they allowed Burke to modify her schedule, just not in the way she desired.
“Patricia Burke did not like being told ‘No,’ ” Assistant U.S. attorney Andrew Han said in his closing argument.
“She continued to complain over and over again because she did not always get her way.”
Both Burke and the government agreed that her problems began when a new group of supervisors came into the office, several of whom knew each other from the Air Force.
“An agency within the Department of Defense went to war, not with one of our adversaries but with one of their own,” her attorney, Jacob Small, said in closing arguments.
Han countered that the only problem was that new supervisors “actually made her follow the rules.”
Burke had been working from home while taking care of her child, which was not allowed, the government said. Sometimes, she was also doing work for a second job on agency time, Han added.
“Filing an [employment discrimination] complaint does not give you the right to thumb your nose at the rules,” he said.
An employee of the Equal Employment Opportunity Office testified last week that members of management tried to hinder its investigation, which ultimately found that Burke was harassed as retaliation for her complaint.
Han suggested that the former DSS employee was biased in Burke's favor. Her supervisors involved themselves in the complaint investigation, Han added, because "management didn't think the EEO office was neutral."
If she was occasionally given the cold shoulder by the supervisors she had accused of discrimination, Han said it was “at most a petty slight” — not a pervasive hostile work environment.
After nearly three full days of deliberations, jurors appeared to split the difference between those points of view.
Attorneys for Burke still claimed victory.
“The jury had clearly seen what’s going on at DSS, and we’re hopeful that this is the beginning of change at the agency,” Small said outside court.
The Defense Security Service, part of the Defense Department, oversees the protection of classified information by government contractors.
In an internal agency survey released in May, nearly half of respondents described the DSS counterintelligence division as one where unprofessional behavior is common and employees are afraid to take concerns to management for fear of reprisal. Several described the division as one in which men in positions of power favor their friends over other employees.
Burke still works at DSS counterintelligence, in a different department but under one of the same managers, William Stephens.
He testified that they have gotten along well since this case began. She disagreed, testifying that he barely speaks to her and recently slammed a door in her face.