Change Comes Slowly for Congressional Staffers–But This Staffer Can Claim a Court Victory

Congress has sometimes been referred to as “the last plantation.” But changes have come to the legislative branch–they just don’t happen very fast. In this case, a former Senate staffer claims he was terminated because he needed time off to recover from surgery and that he was “perceived as disabled.” But does the law apply when a Senator decides not to run for re-election? A court says that it does.

The U.S. District Court has now refused a second bid by former U.S. Senator Mark Dayton (Senator from Minnesota from 2001 to 2007) to dismiss a lawsuit brought against him by a former staffer seeking to enforce employment rights under the Congressional Accountability Act. (Hanson v. Office of Senator Mark Dayton, D.D.C. Civil Case No. 03-1149 (RJL), 2/15/08) The facts are as summarized in the court’s opinion.

Brad Hanson worked on Senator Dayton’s successful 2000 Senate campaign and then joined the Senator’s Fort Snelling, Minnesota Office. A little over a year later, Hanson had to have heart surgery. When he told the Senator, Hanson claims that Dayton replied by saying “You’re done.” (Opinion pp. 1-2) In any event, Hanson was terminated several weeks after his surgery. He claims the termination was because he needed time off to recover from the surgery and that he was “perceived as disabled.” (Id.)

Hanson sued under the Congressional Accountability Act (CAA), the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Senator Dayton’s Office moved to dismiss based on immunity under the Speech or Debate Clause of the Constitution. The District Court for D.C. denied that motion and ordered that Hanson’s suit could go forward. The Senator’s office appealed and the Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed. The Supreme Court declined the Senator’s request to review. All of this took about 4 years.

Meanwhile, the Senator decided not to run for reelection and left office in 2007.

Once it became apparent that the Supreme Court would not step in and make this law suit go away, Dayton’s office filed a second motion to dismiss, this time arguing mootness and abatement. Briefly, the argument goes that because Dayton was no longer in the Senate and therefore his senate office has gone away, a lawsuit could not lie against it.

Not so, now rules an apparently riled Judge Leon: “Whether this line of reasoning holds water, of course, necessarily depends on whether the Dayton Office ceased to exist, as a matter of law, when Senator Dayton’s term expired…I have concluded that it did not!” (p. 6)

Citing language from the CAA itself as well as its legislative history, Judge Leon concludes that Congress intended as an institution to be accountable to its employees: “Simply put, interpreting the CAA in the manner advanced by the Dayton Office would effectively immunize a lame duck Member or Senator who may engage in the very conduct the CAA was designed to protect employees from. And that is a consequence wholly contradictory to Congress’ clearly-stated intent.” (p. 8)

Judge Leon’s denial of the Dayton office motion means that the case can now go forward to trial. It has now been around 5 years since the suit was filed. However, based on the case history, there likely will be another round of appeals. Hanson appears to be in for a long wait to get his day in court.

About the Author

Susan McGuire Smith spent most of her federal legal career with NASA, serving as Chief Counsel at Marshall Space Flight Center for 14 years. Her expertise is in government contracts, ethics, and personnel law.