The XX Factor

Judge Calls Women “Gorilla-Like,” “Buxom”; Keeps His Job While Whistleblower Is Disciplined

More gaveling, less writing of bigoted notes.

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Like so many jurists, administrative law judge John H. Pleuss has a way with words. But unlike his more esteemed superiors, Pleuss’ writing style falls somewhere between insult comic and grotesque bigot. Here is his description of one claimant in his courtroom: “Very black, African looking woman (actually a gorilla-like appearance).” Another: “obese” and “buxom.” Yet another: an “obese, young” woman wearing a “skimpy black top.” And more: “looks like a man”; “Young, white, female; long brown hair; attractive; looks innocent.”

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“I’ll pay this lady when hell freezes over!” Pleuss wrote of one claimant. Note the “lady” bit, which is no coincidence: Every one of Pleuss’ offensive descriptions pertained to a woman.

Pleuss, who works at the Social Security Administration’s Madison, Wisconsin, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, meant these descriptions to be private: He wrote them down in notes on hearings, which, he believed, only he would see. Does that mean these outrageously racist and misogynistic comments were isolated incidents, unrelated to his office conduct? Of course not! From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

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Machelle Keller, a lead case technician and one of those who confirmed the case notes are genuine … said Pleuss has hugged her in a way that makes her feel uncomfortable.

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“I used to have to say, ‘My eyes are up here,’ as did a bunch of other (women) in the office,” she told the Journal Sentinel.

Rebecca Salawdeh, a Wauwatosa attorney who handles federal employment disputes, said she has represented long-term federal employees who were fired “for far less” than what Pleuss is said to have done.

If the allegations are true, she said, “there’s no reason why (Pleuss) shouldn’t be fired.”

Has Pleuss been fired? Or disciplined? Or investigated? Or relieved from duty until further notice?

Pleuss has not received any apparent discipline for his comments, which were first reported by the conservative website Wisconsin Watchdog in June, besides being asked not to hold hearings or sign decisions for a two-week period, according to Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges.

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But someone has been disciplined: The woman who reported Pleuss’ misconduct.

Machelle Keller … said she is facing retaliation from SSA management for speaking to the press and a Senate committee about the “toxic” work environment in the Madison office. Keller also testified in a whistleblower complaint about Pleuss’ conduct, including his treatment of his co-workers, and about retaliation against whistleblowers by Laura Hodorowicz, the Madison office director.

In addition, an armed security guard has sat in a cubicle among the Madison office employees since June 20 to ensure safety in the office, said Keller and another source who spoke to the Journal Sentinel on the condition of anonymity.

And Keller doesn’t see a resolution in the near future:

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Keller said she has doubts about whether the SSA will address any of her complaints and those of the other whistleblowers about Pleuss, or cease what she views as retaliation.

“I’m hoping, but, you know, I’ve hoped for a while, and they just keep throwing stuff at me,” she said. “They’ve had so many opportunities to fix this.”

Zahm, however, argues that Pleuss is being painted in a bad light and that the controversy overlooks his fundamentally admirable character.

“Judge Pleuss regrets ever writing these notes,” she told the Journal Sentinel, noting that she was saddened to see his named “dragged through the mud, because I don’t think he deserves it.” She described Pleuss’ notes, which used vile racial slurs and sexually charged language, as “shorthand descriptions” that were “taken out of context.”

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