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Goonan v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 22, 2014

BRUCE GOONAN, Plaintiff,


J. PAUL OETKEN, District Judge.

This case arises out of the end of Plaintiff Bruce Goonan's twenty-five year career with Defendant, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York ("the Fed"). Goonan, who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder ("PTSD"), alleges that the Fed failed to provide him with reasonable workplace accommodations in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. ("ADA"), the New York State Human Rights Law, Exec. Law § 290 et seq. ("NYSHRL"), and the Administrative Code of the City of New York, § 8-101 et seq. ("NYCHRL"). The Fed previously moved to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim and this Court denied the motion. (Dkt. No. 21.) The Fed now moves for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It contends that any reasonable juror would find that it offered reasonable accommodations that Goonan refused, and that Goonan subsequently caused a breakdown in the parties' interactive process. For the reasons that follow, the motion for summary judgment is denied.

I. Background[1]

A. Goonan and the Fed

Goonan worked for twenty-five years as an application developer in the Fed's information technology department, now called the Technology Services Group ("TSG"). His expertise lay in the design and development of mainframe computer applications for the Fed's high-volume securities trading work. Although he was occasionally rated "below standards" on his communication skills and self-management in Fed performance appraisals, Goonan maintained an overall "meets standards" rating in all annual appraisals with the exception of one made near the end of his career, during the disruptions that gave rise to this suit. From 2001 until the end of his career, his immediate supervisor was Julie Sun-Jannes. Because Goonan telecommuted on Fridays and Sun-Jannes telecommuted on Mondays, they met in person only about once a week. Most of their communication about Goonan's work was via phone or email.

Many of Goonan's job functions could be-and often were-performed remotely. Of the 80 to 90 people that Zimbalist supervised in application development, 50 to 60 telecommuted for at least part of their work week, including some who did not meet overall performance expectations. Some TSG employees telecommuted full-time, and Goonan himself had previously telecommuted full-time for a few weeks in May 2010 without any performance complaints.

B. 9/11 and the Move to Three World Financial Center

On September 11, 2001 ("9/11"), Goonan was in his office at 33 Maiden Lane, three blocks from the foot of the World Trade Center ("WTC"). He felt trapped and he feared for his life as the towers of the WTC burned and collapsed two blocks away from him. He sought out Fed-provided 9/11 counselling and employee assistance programs over the next several years, which improved his condition and allowed him to work at 33 Maiden without major issues.

In January 2010, the application development group of the TSG moved to an office on the 23rd floor of Three World Financial Center ("3 WFC"), which overlooks the site of the WTC. The Fed set aside "hoteling sites" for application developers at 33 Liberty Street (the "Main Building") and 33 Maiden Lane, which is across the street from the Main Building. The Fed installed new technology, including webcams and collaboration software, to facilitate collaboration among TSG employees across the three buildings. Shortly after Goonan left the Fed, some TSG employees returned to 33 Maiden Lane on a full-time basis to relieve overcrowding at 3 WFC.

The move to 3 WFC aggravated Goonan's pre-existing PTSD.[2] He became depressed and anxious and had nightmares involving being crushed and trapped. Goonan had to pass by the WTC on his way to work and he was acutely aware of its presence throughout the day. He was afraid that the new building would fall on him and kill him. On February 22, 2010, Goonan contacted the Fed's director of medical services, Dr. Stagg, to ask for a referral for specialist PTSD counseling. The Fed had no PTSD specialist to whom Goonan could be referred, so Dr. Stagg referred him instead to the Employee Assistance Program ("EAP"). This was ineffective and, over the course of 2010, Goonan's work performance declined and his depression deepened.

By the fall of 2010, he was having vivid suicidal fantasies and flashbacks to 9/11. His work performance steeply declined and he received his first "below standards" overall performance review from Sun-Jannes. EAP referred him to a psychologist, Dr. Ilene Cohen, who evaluated him on October 25, 2010. She immediately diagnosed Goonan with PTSD and major depression and referred him to a psychiatrist, Dr. Michele Masliah. At his first meeting with Dr. Masliah on November 1, 2010, she prescribed Celexa (Citalopram), an antidepressant. Cohen believes that Goonan's experiences on 9/11 were "superimposed" on his pre-existing PTSD, which made his response to the attacks "quite severe." (Cohen Dep. 44:10-23.) She believed that Goonan's symptoms were not just about seeing the World Trade Center, but "had more to do with being in the building, in addition to how close he had to walk in order to get into the building." (Cohen Dep. 271:19-273:2; Masliah Dep. 87:21-25.)

C. Goonan Requests Accommodation

In March 2011, Goonan told Sun-Jannes about his difficulties and asked her for permission to work in the Main Building or, alternatively, to telecommute from home. She replied that Goonan would be able to telecommute only if his performance improved because telecommuting was a privilege. She directed Goonan to speak to Dr. Gerald Stagg, head of the Fed's medical department, to ask about possible accommodations. Goonan got in touch with Dr. Stagg, explained his request, forwarded letters from Drs. Cohen and Masliah, and was examined by Lois Hitchock, a nurse practitioner at the Fed's Medical Services department. Dr. Stagg understood the letters to mean that Goonan should be moved out of 3 WFC, and he further admitted at his deposition that he thought that Goonan's request to move was reasonable "from a medical standpoint." (Stagg Dep. 188:11-16.)

Zimbalist rejected Goonan's request for accommodations. The internal process that led to this decision is disputed, but Zimbalist told Goonan on April 20, 2011 that the request was denied because Goonan was a poor performer who needed close supervision. He offered instead seven alternative accommodations, drawn from a treatment plan that had been effective for another employee with 9/11-related PTSD:

(1) to relocate Plaintiff's cubicle to the other side of the floor, away from the view of the WTC construction site; (2) to allow for the use of a white noise machine; (3) to allow for the use of headsets to play soothing music; (4) the use of multi-spectrum light for work space; (5) to divide larger assignments into smaller tasks or steps; (6) to schedule weekly meetings with supervisors to see if deadlines were being met; and (7) to provide assignments in writing via email.

(Stagg Dep. 125:6-135:8.) Goonan felt that none of these proposals would address the core issue, which was his crippling fear that another attack would cause the new tower to fall on him. He told Zimbalist at the April 20 meeting that he would consult with his doctors about the proposals. Goonan told Zimbalist at the end of the meeting that he would follow up once he had recommendations from his doctors. Dr. Cohen told Goonan that he thought that the accommodations would be ...

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