Department of Public Works Refuses to Accommodate Employee with Degenerative Back Condition


WASHINGTON – The ACLU of the District of Columbia today filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, charging the D.C. Department of Public Works with discriminating against Doretha Barber, a DPW employee who lawfully uses medical marijuana outside of work hours to treat chronic back pain. Barber, who has been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and has been an employee at DPW since 2009, is a sanitation worker whose primary duties are manually collecting trash and leaves with a rake.

“I was born with scoliosis and have lived with back pain all of my life, but around 2014, the pain started getting much worse,” said Barber. “I shouldn’t have to lose my job just to live a life free from excruciating pain.”

Barber’s back condition causes painful back spasms that spread through her neck and head, making it difficult for her to stand or walk. The spasms are accompanied by migraine headaches so painful they often make her cry. Her doctor previously prescribed Flexiril, a muscle relaxer, and ibuprofen to treat the pain, but these were insufficient. An authorized provider recommended Barber for the District’s medical marijuana program in fall 2018 and she obtained a card shortly thereafter. Since she began using medical marijuana, her condition has improved significantly. She has less pain and can stand and walk, making it easier to fulfill her job duties without hardship.

In June 2019, upon receiving word that DPW intended to begin implementing random drug tests, Barber disclosed her medical marijuana use to a human resources official, who told her to find an alternate treatment for her pain and put her on forced leave, which eventually constituted leave without pay. The official then informed Barber that she could not return to work until she could pass a drug test. She has ceased using medical marijuana in order to keep her job, but without her medicine, her back spasms have grown worse.

DPW prohibits employees who test positive for marijuana use from working in “safety-sensitive” positions. And last month’s order by Mayor Muriel Bowser attempting to clarify the medical marijuana use policies for all District agencies and their employees leaves room for DPW to continue discriminating against Barber, whose role as sanitation worker is deemed “safety-sensitive,” despite the fact that she does not drive, operate any heavy machinery, or perform any tasks that could risk harm to herself or others.

But under the D.C. Human Rights Act, individuals who use medical marijuana to treat a disability are accorded the same rights as any other individual with a disability: employers must provide those workers with reasonable accommodations that allow them to continue working. DPW has violated Human Rights Act by refusing to make any accommodation for Barber, or even engage with her to discuss possible options.

“Ms. Barber has never reported for work impaired by her medicine, and never would. Her medical treatment needs are between her and her doctor, not between her and her boss,” said Michael Perloff, an attorney with ACLU-DC. “It is unconscionable that DPW won’t honor the basic requirements of the D.C. Human Rights Act to accommodate a long-time employee with her medical condition. She is ready, willing, and able to perform her job, if only DPW will let her.”

The lawsuit seeks Barber’s reinstatement to paid status without the requirement that she stop using the medicine that works best for her. She also seeks damages and backpay for the unpaid leave, which has caused her serious financial hardship.

Today’s case, Barber v. District of Columbia, was filed in D.C. Superior Court. The complaint can be found here: