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A group of former special agents at the Justice Department’s Drug Enforcement Administration will soon receive a settlement from a sex discrimination case, three decades after its original filing.
The $12 million settlement, which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission finalized on July 22, will go to 71 agents who filed claims in the class-action lawsuit. The case centered on a systemic discrimination practice at DEA, which denied qualified female special agents overseas positions, a type of experience that led to faster promotions and frequently went to male agents.
“It’s great that this has been settled for all the women. But it’s too long – 30 years to have to go through this,” former DEA special agent Ann Garcia, who originally filed the case on March 17, 1993, told Federal News Network. “It seemed like the decision would be made, and then I’d have to put the case away. And then I’d hear in a year, or two years, something else would come up. You had to revisit everything constantly.”
The timeline is not uncommon for class action cases, though. They typically take a long time to reach settlement, said Jeremy Wright, a partner at law firm Kator, Parks, Weiser and Wright, which represented Garcia and other special agents in the case.
The timeline dragged out due to years of arguing over whether the case could be certified, Wright said in an interview with Federal News Network. There were multiple hearings and appeals both before and after a July 2009 trial, in which an EEOC administrative judge determined there was evidence of systemic discrimination. Then, DEA’s appeal of the commission’s decision further extended the case. After EEOC finalized the decision in 2014, upholding the discrimination finding, the commission gave female special agent victims time to file claims for individual relief.
Years of discriminatory DEA practices
The litigation covered cases of sex discrimination between 1990 and 1992, during which DEA managers turned down many female special agents for overseas assignments in favor of their male counterparts.
Garcia alleged DEA leadership refused to send female special agents to overseas posts for the agency. After leaders repeatedly denied Garcia’s applications to overseas positions, despite her qualifications, she filed the case on behalf of all the female agents who were being denied assignments.
“I started reaching out to people and finding out that there was more of an issue, that women weren’t being promoted, they weren’t going overseas,” Garcia said. “I realized that there was a much bigger problem.”
Many of these women’s experiences of rejection for the posts became a pattern at the agency during the 1990s, Wright said. Some of the evidence in the case showed managers discriminating against female special agents based on if they were married, pregnant or had children.
“There were incidents where women were asked what their husbands thought about them going overseas, they were asked questions about how the foreign governments in the places that they were applying to go would react to having a female law enforcement agent, or even just a female manager, to work with,” he said.
The female special agents were often better qualified than their male counterparts, Garcia said.
“DEA would prefer to send a guy over that didn’t know the language [and] train them from scratch, than bring a [more qualified] woman over there,” Garcia said. “This is what we would hear all the time – the best female agent isn’t equal to the worst male agent.”
The inability for many female special agents to receive overseas assignments caused a ripple effect – agents who had overseas experience would get promotions more quickly. DEA’s internal process in the 1990s for considering special agents for promotions included a bonus for people who had served overseas for at least one year. Because of the preference, many male special agents received promotions over their female counterparts, even if they were less qualified for the positions, Wright said.
“When the women were systematically denied the foreign assignments because of their sex, they became less attractive candidates for promotional opportunities under the system that DEA had for making promotion decisions,” he said
Eventually, DEA removed the points system that heavily valued foreign assignment experience, but by that time, many female agents had already lost out on promotions, and the pattern still continued. And, DEA managers continued to consider additional and unique experience, which included foreign service assignments, in the promotion process.
“There were threats made against women, about making applications that might take away opportunities for men to serve in these roles. And women were regularly and repeatedly dissuaded from even applying for these positions by management officials, because of what might occur in the selection process,” Wright said.
Although 71 agents were included in the final case settlement, the issue was much more widespread. The actual number of DEA employees who experienced the systemic discrimination is unknown.
“The pattern touched any of the female special agents at that time who were interested in these foreign assignments. It was never clear exactly how many women applied or were deterred from applying for foreign assignments in the early 1990s because of the discrimination,” Wright said.
Since then, DEA has been more explicit in acknowledging that the discrimination occurred. The agency has made efforts to put in place anti-discrimination measures, Wright said.
As part of the case decision, for example, an EEOC administrative judge required DEA to “immediately take corrective action to ensure that the discrimination … does not recur,” and ordered mandatory anti-discrimination training for supervisors, managers and staff involved in the overseas position selection process.
Additionally, the number of DEA female agents and female managers has increased percentagewise since the early 1990s. Out of a total workforce of just over 9,000, women comprised 36% of DEA’s employees in fiscal 2019, the most recent data available from EEOC.
“We believe that DEA still has some room to grow and some improvements that can be made,” Wright said. “But it does appear that the agency is a much more welcoming place for female special agents today than it was in the early 1990s.”
DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in an April press statement the settlement builds on the agency’s continuing efforts to promote the advancement of women in its workforce.
“DEA is committed to increasing the recruitment of female special agents, addressing any discriminatory barriers to advancement, and promoting new and meaningful opportunities,” she wrote.
Federal News Network reached out to DEA for additional input on the settlement, but the agency said it did not have further comments.
What comes next?
Once the case reached the point of negotiations, the 71 female special agents who still had pending claims were ultimately included in the $12 million settlement. The long timeline had some negative consequences for the settlement.
“Not all of the victims of the discrimination filed claims, [and] unfortunately, some of them had passed away in the years that the litigation was ongoing. Some chose not to step forward,” Wright said.
Garcia said at the time she filed the case, stepping forward was a big deal for female special agents.
“There were 25 very brave women that did this with me. Back then, trying to do something like this, you knew that you could maybe hurt your career,” she said.
The claims administration process is already underway, Wright said, after EEOC finalized the settlement in July. A third-party claims administrator will run a formula, approved in the case, to determine how much of the settlement will go to each affected agent.
“It is our anticipation that those payments will be made in a number of months, certainly before the end of this calendar year,” Wright said.