Judge and hearing officer sue state education agency, claiming discrimination

By: - August 22, 2022 11:35 am

A hearing officer and a former administrative law judge are each suing the Iowa Department of Education for alleged discrimination. (Photo by Getty Images)

A hearing officer and a former administrative law judge are each suing the Iowa Department of Education for alleged employment discrimination.

Randy Reiter, who was hired by the Department of Education 46 years ago at age 22, is suing the department in Polk County District Court, alleging age discrimination and gender-based pay discrimination.

State records indicate that for Reiter’s final 25 years of his employment, he worked for the department’s Disability Determination Services Bureau as an administrative law judge presiding over contested hearings dealing with claims for Social Security disability benefits.

In 2019, an assistant bureau chief with the department began repeatedly asking Reiter when he was going to retire. In late 2017, the department allegedly promoted a female disability examiner specialist, Ellen McComas, to fill a vacant position as a disability hearing officer – a job that is largely the same as an administrative law judge.

In December 2020, McComas allegedly complained that because of her gender she was being paid less than Reiter for doing the same job. A short time later, according to the lawsuit, the bureau notified Reiter that even though his duties would remain the same, the department intended to reclassify his position as “examiner specialist advanced” in order to cut his pay by more than $45,000 annually.

When Reiter asked Administrator of Vocational Rehabilitation David Mitchell why he was being demoted, Mitchell allegedly replied that the department “can’t be paying someone at a much higher level than another person doing the same thing.”

Reiter then submitted a formal, written complaint about his demotion and pay cut, at which point Mitchell called Reiter and stated that they were reducing his pay because they could not justify paying him so much more than McComas.

Reiter allegedly responded that the bureau had it backwards, arguing it should be raising McComas’ pay and not reducing his pay. Mitchell allegedly responded by saying the department had to be “good stewards of Social Security monies.”

Reiter then opted to retire, aware that if he didn’t do so before the reclassification, he would lose significant benefits that would be based on his rate of pay at the time of retirement.

Reiter’s lawsuit accuses the department of violating the Iowa Civil Rights Act. In its response, the agency argues Reiter’s wages were “based upon factors other than his gender,” and says his “age was not a motivating factor in any decisions” related to his employment. A trial date has yet to be scheduled.

In the meantime, McComas has filed her own lawsuit against the department in Polk County District Court. She alleges that from the time she assumed her full-time duties as a disability hearings officer in December 2017, the department has unfairly paid her a lesser salary than her male counterparts, Reiter included.

In its response to that claim, the department has alleged that McComas’ lawsuit is barred by the statute of limitations and that McComas is not qualified for the job classification of administrative law judge.

A trial in the McComas case is scheduled for January 2024.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.