Know the system

A recent case decided by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals teaches us that if you want what you're entitled to, you've got to ask for it. The case in point involves Thomas Ballard, a former employee of the Internal Revenue Service.

Ballard claimed that the IRS violated the Rehabilitation Act by failing to accommodate his disability. He was employed by the IRS from 1967 until his retirement on Jan. 1, 1999. After 1985 until his retirement, he worked as a GS-14 large-case manager. As a result of polio contracted during his childhood, Ballard wore leg braces and used crutches and also suffered pain in his upper extremities. The IRS did not dispute that Ballard was disabled for purposes of the provisions of the Rehabilitation Act.

On Oct. 8, 1991, Ballard sent a memo to his manager withdrawing from an IRS management development program in which he had participated for some period of his employment. Ballard said he was withdrawing because he could not accept assignments involving additional travel because of his disability. Ballard attached to his memo two letters from his doctor. The first contained a recommendation that Ballard be allowed to use a "lightweight wheelchair" to reduce his pain and enable him to be more mobile. The second letter also contained a recommendation that Ballard be allowed to use a wheelchair and that "he curtail his traveling and/or travel with another person who can assist him when needed."

Following his withdrawal from the program, Ballard applied but was not selected for two promotions. The first was in 1994 as a GS-15 branch chief in the IRS' St. Louis office. On Aug. 26, 1994, Ballard filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint alleging that he was not selected for this position because of his disability. Ballard attached a copy of his 1991 memo to the complaint and indicated that he was denied full participation in the management development program because the IRS would not accommodate his disability.

In 1997, Ballard was not selected for an acting branch chief assignment in St. Louis. Ballard appealed his EEO case to the Eighth Circuit. Ballard's sole claim was that the IRS committed unlawful employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act by failing to provide reasonable accommodations for his disability.

The court said that this case boiled down to whether Ballard had requested an accommodation. Ballard contended that although he had not filed an explicit request for accommodation, his 1991 memo and his 1994 EEO complaint together constituted a de facto request.

The court didn't buy Ballard's argument. It said that if you want an accommodation you have to ask for it, and Ballard didn't. As for IRS officials, while they clearly knew that Ballard was disabled, they didn't lift a finger to help him. This case should be a lesson to us all. Don't expect the government to look out for you. If you do, you'll be sorely disappointed.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at [email protected]

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