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DC Circuit rules Capitol police race discrimination suit may proceed

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] on Friday reversed [opinion, PDF] a lower court ruling that had dismissed a discrimination lawsuit filed by more than 200 African-American members of the Capitol Police [official website] in 2001. The issue involved whether the officers had adequately pursued mediation through the Office of Compliance [official website] before taking legal action, as required by the Congressional Accountability Act of 1995 (CAA) [text]. The CAA extended Title VII [text] discrimination protections to employees of the legislative branch, but mandated a three-step process of counseling and mediation before a legal complaint can be filed. Circuit Judge Judith Rogers, writing for the three-judge panel, said:

We hold the three-step process is jurisdictional and thus affirm the district court ruling that equitable doctrines, such as vicarious exhaustion, do not apply to excuse compliance with it. We reverse, however, the district court's in-person ruling, holding that neither the CAA nor the procedural rules of the Office of Compliance require in-person attendance by the employee at counseling or mediation. Finally, we hold that receipt of written notice of the end of mediation from the Office of Compliance triggered the CAA's 30 to 90-day period for electing whether to pursue judicial or administrative relief and demonstrated the employee’s completion of counseling and mediation. Accordingly, we remand the cases to the district court.

The lawsuit began in 2001 when some 200 African-American members of the Capitol Police filed suit. They claimed racial discrimination, alleging that superiors officers referred to them as "gangsters" and went as far as to deny certain plaintiffs promotions [AP report].

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