Human Resources News & Insights

Return to the scene of 9/11 disaster ends in worker’s firing: Was it discrimination?

Can an employee claim a transfer to an office near the site of the 9/11 disaster caused his disability — which in turn caused a poor performance review? Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.

The scene

“Jeff Lutz is suing us for ADA discrimination,” company attorney Jim Gannon said to HR manager Betty Drabowski. “I’m completely in the dark on this one.”

“Jeff’s case is a sensitive one,” Betty said, “but I’m pretty sure we’re in the right here.”

“Start from the top,” Jim said.

“It started when Jeff was transferred to our New York office,” Betty said. “The office is right near Ground Zero, and Jeff was there on 9/11. He was really traumatized – he said he thought he was going to die.

“After the transfer, Jeff worked at the new office for a month or so and then put in a request to telecommute,” Betty continued.

“And what happened?”

“We had to deny his request. Jeff’s last performance review was ‘below standards,’ and our handbook specifically states that poor performers require direct supervision,” Betty said.

“Seems pretty cut-and-dried to me, Betty. Am I missing something?”

“Well, Jeff claims the poor review, which was his first, was a direct result of his transfer, which caused a stress-related disability. He says the move gave him flashbacks, affected his sleep and caused anxiety issues,” Betty said.

Jeff sued Betty’s company for disability discrimination, and the company fought to get the suit dismissed. Did the company win?

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The decision

No, the company lost, and a court refused to dismiss Jeff’s discrimination lawsuit.

Betty’s company tried to argue that the company had acted fairly in refusing to grant Jeff’s telecommuting request because of his low performance review rating.

The company also pointed to its own handbook – which requires low-performing workers to receive direct supervision – as further proof it was justified in denying the accommodation request.

The court, however, found the company’s policy “troubling.”

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.”

Therefore, the court refused to dismiss Jeff’s lawsuit, and now the company will have to decide whether it wants to go to trial or fork over a costly settlement to put the whole mess behind it.

Analysis: Case turns ADA ‘on its head’
Granted, this was a very unique case, and even the court said the case “turns the rationale for the ADA’s rule of reasonable accommodation on its head.”

However, it offers an important lesson for firms: Rigid policies that restrict poor performers won’t necessarily shield companies from ADA discrimination suits – particularly if the poor performance can be directly linked to the disability in question.

Best bet: Always engage in the “interactive process” if a possible disability is involved.

Case cite: Goonan v. Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

 

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