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CRANE v. DOLE

February 26, 1985

ROBERT J. CRANE, Plaintiff
v.
ELIZABETH DOLE, et al., Defendants


John Garrett Penn, United States District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: PENN

The plaintiff filed this action pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Act), 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 and 794a and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), 5 U.S.C. § 501 et seq. He alleges that the defendants violated the Act by discriminating against him based solely on his physical handicap, a hearing loss, and that they violated the APA by treating him in a wholly arbitrary and capricious manner. He contends that he is entitled to placement in a position as an Aeronautical Information Specialist (AIS) in the National Flight Data Center of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with back pay, "including appropriate account taken for step and grade promotions, and attorneys' fees and costs incurred in this action". The case came before the Court for a trial de novo. This memorandum opinion constitutes the Court's findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 52.

 I

 1. Plaintiff Robert Crane is a hearing-impaired individual. He uses a hearing aid, and at times, hearing aids.

 2. From 1966 to 1976, plaintiff was an employee of the FAA. For eight of those ten years he worked as an air traffic control specialist (station), GS-2152, a position in which he provided advice and guidance to general aviation pilots and which required, on certain occasions, in-flight communications with pilots and handling of airborne emergencies. During one two-year period, plaintiff held the position of evaluations, proficiency and development specialist, where his principal task was training others.

 3. The medical requirements for the position of air traffic control specialist include the requirement that the incumbent or applicant have no hearing loss of more than 25 decibels in the 500, 1000 or 2000 HZ ranges and must demonstrate no hearing loss in these ranges of more than 20 decibels in the better ear, using ISO (1964) or ANSI (1969) standards.

 4. In 1975, a hearing examination routinely conducted by the FAA revealed that plaintiff suffered from a hearing loss which ultimately resulted, in 1976, in a disability retirement from the FAA because he could no longer meet the stringent hearing requirements for the position of air traffic control specialist.

 5. Later in 1976, plaintiff applied for another FAA position, as an Aeronautical Information Specialist, GS-1361-12 in the National Flight Data Center in Washington, D.C., FAA headquarters, which is responsible for the collection, verification and distribution of aeronautical data concerning the nation's airports, navigation system, air space and related subjects. The AIS position involves no in-flight communications with pilots or any other flight-control function.

 6. The National Flight Data Center is divided into six separate functional areas, some of which are sections and some of which are combined into one section. All are staffed by Specialists in the GS-1361 series. The job descriptions of all sections other than the Notice to Airmen section are identical.

 7. One section, the Flight Data Services Section, is responsible exclusively for publishing seven different compilations of data which appear at designated intervals of time and which are designed to keep the aviation community up to date on the status of flight paths, airports, air space, terminology and other relevant flight information. The seven publications are published on a specific schedule, most every 112 days. The shortest publication interval is 28 days, while the longest is quarterly. Specialists in the Flight Data Services Section prepare these publications.

 8. Two other functional areas, Navigations Aids and Communications and Airports, are combined in one section and have similar functions. The navigation and communication specialists maintain information on the status of navigational aids and communications mechanisms used in the nation's air traffic control system. They do this by receiving information on changes in the system, by verifying those changes, obtaining a written record and entering the changes into the data base used by the FAA for such information. Ninety-nine percent of the time this information is received in writing the ordinary course of business; emergency changes would be entered through a different mechanism, through the Notice of Airmen Section described below.

 9. The Airports specialists maintain records on all public use of privately owned airports, including such matters as changes in operating hours of runways, services and other aspects of airport operation. They use the same methods to obtain, verify and transfer the information received as the navigations/communications specialists. It takes 15 days to get information from receipt to the data base. As with respect to the navigations and communications specialists, emergencies are handled through the Notice of Airmen Section.

 10. Two of the sections, Air Space and Flight Procedures, are responsible for updating information on the routes on which and the procedures by which planes fly. The information for these sections almost always becomes a rulemaking component of the FAA inasmuch as the information received concerning these matters consists of rules or regulations of the agency. These sections receive the rules or regulations in writing and transmit that information in various ways on a specific cycle, such as 56 days for the Airspace Section.

 11. The Notice to Airmen Section (NOTAM) differs from the other sections of the National Flight Data Center, despite the fact that the AIS are in the same job category and Civil Service designation, GS-1361. This section, as the job description states, is responsible for "ensuring expeditious receipt, effective processing and dissemination of time-critical" information concerning changes in any aspect of the nation's flight data. The NOTAM section is divided into two parts, the domestic and international. The domestic section receives information from 371 flight service stations by teletypes in the National Flight Data Center; the international section receives information worldwide. The specialists who work in the NOTAM section receive teletyped pieces of information (NOTAMs) and, when necessary, verify it by contacting its sources. While, at present, specialists in the domestic part of the NOTAM section use the telephone to perform this task, this is not the only way in which verification can take place. For example, the international component verifies information by teletype; telephone verification is not used at all in the international section. Other means of verification are possible.

 12. At the time plaintiff applied for the position of AIS in the National Flight Data Center, there existed no hearing requirements for the AIS job similar to those which existed for the position of air traffic control specialist. At the time he applied in 1976, the requirement for hearing was that imposed generally on federal employees, that is, the "ability to hear the conversational voice, with or without a hearing aid." The FAA does not test or otherwise make any effort to ascertain the hearing levels of its AIS in any section.

 13. In 1978, Congress amended the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794a. As a result of that legislation, the Office of Personnel Management revised the hearing requirements for AIS positions so as to provide, as of September 24, 1979, that "in most cases, a specific physical condition or impairment will not automatically disqualify an applicant for appointment." Rather, the new rule provides that the "loss or impairment of a specific function may be compensated for by the satisfactory use of a prosthesis or mechanical aid. Reasonable accommodation may also be considered in determining an applicant's ability to perform the duties of a position. Reasonable accommodation may include but is not limited to: the use of assistive devices, job modification or restructuring, provisions of readers and interpreters, or adjusted work schedules."

 14. When plaintiff applied for the position of AIS, GS-13611-112, in 1976, he was found among the "best qualified" by personnel rules, but his name was inadvertently left off the list of best qualified applicants," the list of names from which a selecting official must make his selection. Thereafter, the agency reconsidered plaintiff for the position. The first time, the agency acknowledged erroneous procedures were used, and agreed to consider plaintiff again. The second time, the Court found the decision to be unlawful and remanded. The third consideration is at issue here.

 15. After administrative appeal, the FAA agreed, on August 5, 1977, to give Mr. Crane "priority consideration" for the next AIS position at the National Flight Data Center.

 16. Under FAA personnel rules, an applicant granted "priority consideration" must be considered for the next "appropriate" vacancy before other candidates are considered for the position. An "appropriate" vacancy is one which (a) would normally be filled competitively; (b) is at the same grade level as originally applied for; and (c) would be acceptable to the employee.

 17. On February 13, 1978, Beauford Bancroft, director of the National Flight Data Center, considered plaintiff solely for a position in the NOTAM section and declined to select plaintiff.

 18. The basis for Bancroft's decision was that plaintiff had been medically retired as a result of his hearing loss from his position as air traffic control specialist.

 19. At the time of his decision, Bancroft had no authority to impose medical requirements on the position of AIS, had no knowledge of the extent of plaintiff's hearing loss and made no inquiries to determine what the extent of plaintiff's hearing loss was. Nor did Bancroft have any knowledge whether plaintiff had any difficulty using the telephone. He was unaware of any duty toward plaintiff with respect to his hearing impairment. Finally, at the time of the decision in 1978, Bancroft had no knowledge whether plaintiff's hearing loss would affect his ability to perform the essential function of the job of AIS in the NOTAM section of any other National Flight Data Center section. The actions of Bancroft or the agency did not amount to an "intentional" ...


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