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Washington-Brad Hanson was working as a high-level staffer for a U.S. senator when he was diagnosed with a serious heart defect that required surgery. Until the time of his diagnosis in July 2002, Hanson says his boss, Senator Mark Dayton, D-Minn., often praised his work, which included creating and managing a health care help line for constituents. In fact, Hanson says that Dayton was so impressed with his efforts that the senator gave him a hefty pay raise during his two-year stint on the staff. But upon sharing with Dayton the news of his cardiac condition and his need for time off, Hanson claims he was immediately fired because of his disability-a claim Dayton denies. Now, Hanson is in court fighting for the right to sue the senator for employment discrimination, a case the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia is hearing this week along with that of another congressional staffer who claims she was unjustly fired. In that case, Beverly Fields-former chief of staff to Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas-claims age and race discrimination led to her termination last year. Representatives from the offices of both Dayton and Johnson declined to comment on the allegations. Congress under shield? At issue in both cases is whether members of Congress are shielded from employment discrimination lawsuits brought by staffers. Constitutional language broadly protects lawmakers’ speech, debate and other “legislative activities.” The “speech and debate clause” is intended to immunize federal legislators from liability in the course of conducting congressional business. With the passage of the 1995 Congressional Accountability Act, the legislative branch became subject to many of the same employment statutes that apply to the private sector. However, the law preserved broad protections under the speech and debate clause. In hearing the former staffers’ cases, the appeals court will consider whether that immunity applies to discrimination suits filed by congressional employees. Earlier this year, judges on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia refused to dismiss the cases on the grounds of congressional immunity, which led to the joint appeal. In a rare move, the D.C. Circuit decided to hear the cases en banc, a decision made even more unusual because it was not requested by the parties involved, but by the appellate court itself. “It happens once in a blue moon,” Mark Levy, head of Kilpatrick Stockton’s appellate group in Washington, said of the court’s sua sponte action. “It’s not entirely unprecedented, but it’s very rare.”

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