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First Published Thursday, April 3rd, 2008.

Former employee files suit against Overland Park

By: Holly Kramer, Staff Writer

Thursday, April 3, 2008 1:19 AM CDT

Cindy Earnshaw, former Overland Park animal control officer, has filed a lawsuit against the city alleging discrimination because of her disability.
Earnshaw has Asperger syndrome, a neurological disorder that affects a person’s social interaction.
Earnshaw said she faced discrimination and bullying during her time with the Animal Control department before she resigned in April 2007.
Earnshaw said staff resented her because she did not make small talk with them.
“It’s natural for people to want to stand around and chit-chat,” Earnshaw said. “That’s not something that comes naturally to me. When I’m at work, I am there to work.”
Earnshaw started working at the department in 1999 and said the environment became increasingly hostile after she had been there a year and received positive feedback from evaluations.
“I was such a high achiever, (co-workers) actually articulated on numerous occasions that I was like that to make them look bad,” Earnshaw said. “When someone has Asperger’s, we’re focused on something and apparently that was a bad way to be.”
Earnshaw said her evaluations from the city are close to perfect.
Her duties included enforcing city animal ordinances, making sure that people and animals stayed safe, and writing reports and making court appearances.
“I was never bitten and no animal was injured by me,” Earnshaw said.
She said she asked for protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act and asked that staff attend sensitivity training. Earnshaw met Jenny Layton, a licensed master social worker, at the beginning of the training process.
Layton said the training did not help Earnshaw or the staff.
Layton said people with Asperger’s have difficulty reading body language and having reciprocal conversations.
“It’s a developmental disorder,” Layton said. “People with Asperger’s lack social savvy and some common sense. They are very literal thinkers. They can learn to have good conversations, but it’s not their natural communication mode.”
Judy Albright, who formerly worked with Earnshaw, described her as a good employee.
“Her work ethic would best be described as ‘intently focused.’ It does not matter what she is doing, Cindy has the ability to pinpoint her attention with laser-like accuracy,” Albright said. “She is habitually thorough, precise and professional. Her employee performance evaluations over the years she worked for OPPD would better detail her work ethic than I. Her personality is quiet, reserved but witty and perceptive and compassionate.”
Earnshaw received the Asperger’s diagnosis at age 36.
“It’s a new diagnosis in our country,” Layton said. “A lot of people Cindy’s age or older are hitting walls in their lives and not realizing that they might have Asperger’s.”
Layton said Earnshaw’s trials at work escalated.
“It got far out of hand,” Layton said. “Cindy had asked for the city to provide a written agenda for the meetings they had and they refused to do it.”
Earnshaw said the requests she made would not have cost the city a dime.
A roundtable discussion made matters worse, she said.
“In 2003, a major, two sergeants and other animal control officers were allowed to go around the table and say what they didn’t like about me,” Earnshaw said.
Earnshaw described being left out of the communication system when the department bought mobile phones for everyone but her.
“They all got personal Nex-Tel cell phones and used them to bypass police radio and communicate with each other and didn’t have to communicate with me,” Earnshaw said. “And that was tolerated.”
Earnshaw filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about the city’s “disregard” of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The act states employers with 15 or more employees should provide qualified individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to benefit from the full range of employment-related opportunities available to others.
Earnshaw said conditions did not improve and, seeing no hope from the EEOC complaint, she resigned in April 2007 and has not worked since.
“I miss my job every single day,” Earnshaw said. “It kills me that I can’t work.”
Earnshaw and Layton said they hope filing the lawsuit will send a message to the city.
“I hope Cindy is validated by the lawsuit,” Layton said. “The office hierarchy wanted to silence her, but behavior like that is unacceptable. The city needs to make changes to deal with people who have Asperger’s in the workplace.”
Earnshaw said she hopes the court finds the city discriminated against her.
“I hope it brings to light that discrimination is an issue in the workplace and there are laws in place against it,” Earnshaw said. “I hope the lawsuit brings this issue to the forefront. Though the city does have policies in place, they know that those policies don’t work for situations like mine.”
Layton said bullying can occur anywhere.
“People who don’t have disabilities are subjected to bullying,” Layton said. “Bullying in the workplace or anywhere else has a devastating effect on people. It kills people.”
Overland Park offered a statement that the EEOC issued findings of “No probable cause” regarding Earnshaw’s complaints. The statement said the city would respond “fully” to the complaint in court and the city remains “confident that when this matter is finally determined through the judicial process, its handling of this matter will be found to have been appropriate.”
No date has been set for the hearing.

Source: http://kccommunitynews.com/articles/2008/04/04/blue_valley_sun/news/doc47f3ddd8d68c3181111159.txt

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