Why it matters: In an employee-friendly opinion emphasizing the need for “active participation” in the interactive process of finding a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal court judge in New York allowed a suit brought by a former employee with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to move forward. The plaintiff’s PTSD was triggered by the September 11 attacks and worsened when his employer relocated his team to a building near the site of the World Trade Center. Although the employer pointed out that it proposed multiple accommodations for the employee – such as a cube without a view of the site and a white noise machine – the court said the proposed accommodations did not address the employee’s “consistently stated fear of being near the site” of the World Trade Center. The employer also denied the worker’s suggested accommodations to work from a different Manhattan building or telecommute from home. The breakdown of the reasonable accommodation process could result in liability for the employer under the statute, the court said, as “the interactive process of the ADA demands active participation by both parties in creating a reasonable accommodation, not just occasional employer reactions as a mentally ill employee works his way through the resources structure.”

Detailed Discussion

On September 11, 2001, Bruce Goonan was in his office at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, three blocks from the foot of the World Trade Center. He feared for his life and felt trapped as the towers burned and collapsed. The events of the day exacerbated Goonan’s preexisting PTSD, which began in 1982 after he and his wife were in a car crash that resulted in his serious injury and her death.

With counseling, Goonan was able to manage his PTSD until 2010, when the Fed moved his application development group to an office on the 23rd floor of Three World Financial Center, overlooking the site of the World Trade Center. The move aggravated Goonan’s PTSD. He became depressed and anxious and his work performance suffered.

Goonan informed his employer of his difficulties and requested permission to work in a different Fed building or telecommute from home. His request was denied because of his poor work performance. A supervisor proffered seven alternative accommodations based on a treatment plan for another employee struggling with 9/11-related PTSD, such as the use of white noise machines or moving Goonan’s cube to a different location without a view of the site.

Rejecting the proposals, Goonan said none would actually address the core issue, “his crippling fear that another attack would cause the new tower to fall on him.” His treating physicians opined that the accommodations would be ineffective or possibly harmful.

The interactive process broke down when the Fed again refused to allow Goonan to telecommute, even on a trial basis, and he announced his intent to retire. He then filed suit under the ADA.

Denying the Fed’s motion for summary judgment, U.S. District Court Judge J. Paul Oetken explained that the employer failed to make good faith and reasonable efforts, and therefore could be liable for the failure of the interactive process.

The record was far from clear that the Fed’s seven proposed modifications would have reasonably accommodated Goonan’s disability, he wrote, and “[n]either of Goonan’s treating doctors recommended or approved the changes.” The fact that the employer used recommendations based on another employee’s needs “does not show that they were suitable as a matter of law,” the court added. Goonan was not required to take the accommodations for a test-drive, as argued by the Fed, Judge Oetken said. “[T]he ADA imposes no obligation on an employee to try out proposed modifications to test their effectiveness: the interactive process does not extend so far as to require either party to do what the other wants on a trial basis,” he wrote.

An alternative argument presented by the employer – that Goonan unilaterally terminated the interactive process by choosing to retire rather than continuing a discussion of alternative accommodations – also failed. “It appears undisputed that Goonan chose to retire after becoming frustrated with the Fed’s persistent refusal to reasonably accommodate his disability,” the court said. “Goonan’s mere decision to quit, then, cannot be dispositive of the entire interactive-process question.”

The Fed’s good faith efforts were called into question by its rationale for declining Goonan’s request to telecommute. Other employees below standards were allowed to telecommute, the court noted, and Goonan’s poor performance, the basis for the refusal, was a result of his PTSD.

“[T]he interactive process of the ADA demands active participation by both parties in creating a reasonable accommodation, not just occasional employer reactions as a mentally ill employee works his way through the resources structure,” Judge Oetken wrote. “[A] jury could also conclude on the basis of these facts that the Fed was merely attempting to placate Goonan rather than making good-faith reasonable efforts to accommodate him. Here, then, the Fed’s rejection of Goonan’s request, the dubious coherence of its proffered explanations for that decision, and its unwillingness to show any flexibility despite Goonan’s repeated efforts to seek out doctors, supervisors, and ombudsmen all create genuine questions as to the Fed’s good faith and the reasonableness of its efforts to help Goonan.”

The court also denied summary judgment for the Fed on its undue hardship defense, Goonan’s retaliation claim under the ADA, and state and city law claims.

To read the opinion in Goonan v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, click here.