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Appealing cases: Judge Tela L. Weber Gatewood

  Mary Boone  

Judge Tela L. Weber Gatewood ’70 earned her juris doctorate with distinction from the University of Iowas College of Law and was admitted to both the Iowa and California bar associations. After graduation, Gatewood worked as assistant city attorney for the city of Des Moines for five years. From 1978 to 1994, she served the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) a Senior trial attorney and supervisory trial attorney in Philadelphia and later in Dallas; during her last three years with the EEOC she was an administrative judge. Since 1994, she’s served as administrative law judge for the Social Security Administration in Oklahoma City.

Gatewood served on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Administrative Law Judge and is a member of both the Association of Administrative Law Judge and the National Association of Administrative Law Judge.

GGatewood’s statements do not reflect the polcy of, nor is she speaking for, any of her past employers.

The Cases
Judge Gatewood says the most difficult and challenging case she’s ruled on comes from her day as an administrative judge at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In this role, she handled discrimination complaints from federal employees.

One particular case involved a young man who had not been successful in completing the training class for air traffic controllers. The man (names are not used because administrative cases are confidential until appealed) had a rare disease that greatly affected his ability to waslk. The disease also can have a mental element, but this man had achieved academic success in the past. The man alleged discrimination because of his disability.

After hearing the evidence, Judge Gatewood was convinced the man received disparate treatment due to his disability, but she couldn’t be sure whether a hostile environment or his own difficulties grasping the knowledge required of a controller was to blame. The weight of the decisiion was not lost on Judge Gatewood because she knew the U.S. Department of Transportation, which includes the Federal Aviation Administration, almost always upheld the finding of the administrative judge. Adding to the difficulty was her knowledge that there were adequate numbers of air traffic controllers and no new training classes were anticipated.

If she found the man not qualified and not entitled to relief, she risked not enforcing the antidiscrimination laws. If she found the agency didn’t prove the man unqualified, and further that the man did not comprehend what he needed to know, she might put the public’s safety at risk.

Judge Gatewood decided she must follow the antidiscrimination law she was worn to uphold. She found in favor of the man and indicated an appropriate remedy would be to place him in another training class if one was to be held in the near future.

The Department of Transportation upheld her ruling and the man was invited to participate in a training class that began shortly after her ruling was issued.

At the Social Security Adminisstration, administrative law judges primarily handle appeals from denial of disability benefits.

Judge Gatewood says her most interesting and difficult cases almost always include a primary mental impairment, although the individual might be in denial and believe her physical impairment is primary. She recalls one such woman with a bipolar disorder.

During manic episodes, the woman had grandiose delusions; during the initial stages of depressed episodes, she could become confrontational. Her son testified the claimant often thought she was rich or owned the local bank or another local store during the manic stages. Her son said she’d been known to go into the bank, demand her money, and tell those who didn’t cooperate that she’d fire them. The woman was lucid throughout the hearing itself, but the episodes were well-documented so Gatewood’s decision to allow benefits because of mental impairments was not particularly difficult.

It was after the decision was issued that the case became more interesting.

The claimant decided to make Judge Gatewood a pen pal of sorts. Though the judge never responded, the woman wrote her several letters each week for at least a year. Sometimes the claimant would close with “I am not crazy,” a reference to her knowledge that benefits had been allowed for reasons of her mental impairment. The letters often showed copies had been sent to the FBI, CIA, Department of Defense, and Department of State.

Toward the end of her letter writing campaign, the woman wrote of a rich man—a nobleman—she was going to marry. She promised to send a wedding invitation and even sent a list of gift suggestions. She said they needed “special permission” to marry and find a place where they could live. Late letters indicated they had received permission to marry and live in Canada. She said in addition to her new family, she would be allowed to take three people with her to Canada. She wrote that she had decided to take Betty Crocker, Richard Gere, and a jazz band.

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