When an employee who was directly affected by the 9/11 tragedy was transferred to an office at Ground Zero, it set off a chain of events that led to an ADA disability discrimination lawsuit against his employer. Could a simple step have prevented the whole situation?
Here’s the background: Bruce Goonan’s department had been moved to an office right near Ground Zero.
During the events of, Goonan had been trapped in his office and “believed he was going to die.”
So, when Goonan’s department moved to an office directly overlooking Ground Zero, he started having a number of problems. According to the suit, Goonan suffered flashbacks to 9/11, had difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and suffered from depression and anxiety to the point that he had suicidal thoughts.
Because of this, Goonan requested a telecommuting accommodation. Sounds simple enough right?
Problem was, during the time Goonan was in the location facing Ground Zero, he received a “below standards” performance review. And because the company had a written policy requiring workers to get direct supervision when their performance slipped “below standards,” the company denied the request.
So Goonan sued for disability discrimination under the ADA, and the company tried to get the case tossed out.
What the court said
The court refused to dismiss the case.
The court’s reasoning: It thought the company’s policy was “troubling” because, according to the court, “failure to consider reasonable accommodations for disabilities which lead to poor performance … amounts to a discharge solely because of the disabilities.”
While this was a very unique case (the court itself said the case “turns the rationale for the ADA’s rule of reasonable accommodation on its head”), it does offer an important lesson for employers.
Overly strict policies that place restrictions on poor performers won’t necessarily keep companies safe from ADA discrimination suits – particularly if the poor performance can be directly linked to a disability.
As we’ve mentioned in the past, always engage in the “interactive process” if a possible disability — any possible disability — is involved.