A federal judge in Baltimore has ordered the National Institutes of Health to reinstate a biochemist who was pressured into a disability retirement by superiors who failed to give her job flexibility to cope with her malady of extreme sleepiness.
The decision by Senior U.S. District Judge Herbert F. Murray, in the 1989 case of plaintiff Sharon Johnson, a Ph.D. biochemist, has drawn the attention of two women's rights groups that scheduled a news conference in Washington today and a later rally at NIH in Bethesda to protest alleged discrimination against other female employees there.
Murray said NIH officials deliberately created "intolerable" working conditions for Johnson, were "insensitive" to her narcolepsy disability and pressured her to resign under what is known as a "constructive discharge."
The judge found that NIH officials did not attempt to find Johnson a job that would accommodate her illness, and thus violated the federal Rehabilitation Act and federal regulations that bar discrimination against handicapped employees.
Murray ordered the health agency to reinstate Johnson to her former GS-14 grade with full back pay and front pay, which means she must be paid from the time of her resignation in 1986 until she is rehired, in addition to what she earns afterward.
The judge also ordered NIH to assign Johnson "to an appropriate position as soon as possible."
Murray awarded Johnson $266,309 in damages but said NIH could pay as little as $57,000 of that after deductions of about $41,000 that Johnson has earned since she quit the agency and $168,000 she may be due in worker's compensation benefits.
Johnson, 59, lives in Annapolis and operates a flower shop there. She suffers from a form of narcolepsy that forced her to take brief naps because she would become sleepy during her hour drives to and from work at NIH. She also has a heart condition and has had surgery for breast cancer.
Johnson, who worked at NIH from 1979 to 1986, says in the suit that stress on the job -- caused by her superiors' actions regarding her health problems and sex discrimination she allegedly suffered -- heightened her narcolepsy.
But she says she could not take medicine to quell it because of her heart problem.
She said yesterday that job stress caused her to seek emergency medical treatment three times within a few months of her transfer into the NIH's Division of Research Grants.
"I can pinpoint the incidents that sent me to the emergency room," Johnson said.
"It's just a terrible bad attitude they have there. NIH is looked to as a leader, yet this [her case] is the role model. It's shameful that the premier institution establishing health policy in this country discriminates against handicapped persons such as me."
Debra S. Katz, one of Johnson's lawyers, said Murray's decision is "a landmark" for NIH women because "Sharon Johnson fought it all the way through and won."
"We believe most strongly, particularly on issues that affect the health of workers, that NIH should be a leader," Katz said. "But NIH has always taken the position that they can fight these suits through a war of legal attrition through the EEOC [Equal %J Employment Opportunity Commission] and the courts. The [working] environment [at NIH] is very bad, very discriminatory. But the perception is, they can drag it out."
Katz said she knows of at least five other discrimination suits filed by women against NIH, which critics have charged is a bastion of male supremacy.
"Sharon Johnson is holding out a lot of hopes for these other women," Katz said.
Johnson's problems began in 1985, when she changed jobs and asked her new supervisor for permission to come to work as much as a half-hour early or late, so she could pull off the road and nap when necessary. She also sought permission to adjust her schedule periodically to account for seasonal traffic in the Washington area, to ease her stress while driving.
"There were times when I'd get to work and I couldn't even get out of the car," she said yesterday, "until I'd taken a five-minute nap."
But she asserted in her suit that she constantly had to battle for such flexibility, was denied medical leave, was illegally forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before she could return to work after taking leave without pay shortly before she resigned, and that her supervisor pasted her signature on a poor-performance evaluation in an attempt to speed her anticipated disability retirement.
Johnson also said she was sexually harassed on the job by her boss, an NIH physician. He allegedly kissed her during her first day of work, constantly called her "Luv" and other "diminutive" names, invited her out for lunches and drinks, and repeatedly touched her shoulders and back, actions she said she found "offensive."
Murray ruled that Johnson "failed to prove her case" on the sexual harassment allegation in a two-week trial last summer.