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Pantazes v. Jackson

March 31, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ellen Segal Huvelle United States District Judge


Plaintiff Peter Pantazes has brought suit against the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 791, 794d ("the Act"), for failing to provide him with reasonable accommodations and accessible technology, and for harassing him because of his disability. Plaintiff claims that after returning to work following a stroke that left his vision impaired and diminished his short term memory, HUD took years to provide him with the accommodations recommended by both his doctors and the agency's own consultants, failed to work in good faith with him in identifying appropriate accommodations, and created a hostile work environment where HUD managers disparaged and disregarded plaintiff's accommodation requests. Defendant now moves for summary judgment and dismissal of plaintiff's claims on the basis that Pantazes is not disabled within the meaning of the Act, any failure to accommodate his needs is attributable to his own refusal to cooperate with the agency, and the agency took all reasonable steps to accommodate plaintiff's needs and therefore did not create a hostile work environment. However, there are genuine issues of material fact, and thus, defendant's motions must be denied.


Plaintiff Peter Pantazes has been employed at HUD since 1991, where he has performed various types of financial analyses. (Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Pantazes Decl.) at 1-2.) In December 1999, plaintiff was promoted to GS-14 and assigned new duties as a Loan Finance Specialist at HUD's Office of Community Planning and Development ("CPD"). ( Id.; Def.'s Revised Ex. 2 (Notification of Personnel Action dated Dec. 5, 1999).) About a week later, plaintiff suffered congestive heart failure and a stroke, which damaged his optic nerve, leaving him permanently unable to see in the left visual field, generally diminished his visual acuity, and resulted in short term memory loss and easy distractability. (Pl.'s Ex. 1 (Mar. 15, 2000 letter from Dr. Whicker of Neurological Medicine, P.A.); Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 1-2.) Plaintiff also suffered from depression as a result of his poor physical condition. (Pl.'s Ex. 2 (Mar. 28, 2000 letter from psychiatrist Dr. Ganjoo).) In order to "decrease his depression and increase his self-esteem," plaintiff was to return to his routine, including to work at HUD. ( Id.

Plaintiff's psychiatrist noted that for Pantazes "to do his work he needs appropriate equipment for the needs of his disability." ( Id. His neurologist stated that plaintiff "needs visual accommodations including but not limited to a 21 inch computer monitor, a small TV screen [in addition to the monitor, for magnifying paper documents], large print books and magnifying aids." (Def.'s Ex. 4 (prescription of April 3, 2000 by Dr. Whicker).) Plaintiff's occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist stated that "to optimize his work performance, we have recommended that Mr. Pantazes try to increase the size of small print on computer screens and frequently used text, utilize organizational and memory aids, and keep distractions in his immediate work environment to a minimum." (Def.'s Ex. 4 (letter from Brown and Cozens-Hoffman at Laurel Regional Hospital).) Plaintiff's mobility was also hindered as a consequence of his congestive heart failure, morbid obesity, and Pickwickian Syndrome. (Def.'s Ex. 4 (Jan. 20, 2000 letter from Dr. Romero).)

In March 2000 plaintiff returned to work and submitted to his supervisor, Paul Webster, the above-referenced medical documentation (Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 2), as well as a letter signed by plaintiff requesting various accommodations, including office supplies, training in the work of the department to which he had been promoted just before his stroke, re-training in various computer programs as a result of his stroke, large print reference materials, a "computer monitor screen shade to stop glare," and a "large adjustable desk magnifier with fluorescent lamp." (Pl.'s Ex. 5.) He further stated that, "to assist in preventing eye fatigue and migraine, [he] would appreciate a small couch or large soft chair with flourescent floor lamp behind it for reading so I may continue my work; to be able to change positions keeps me alert." ( Id.

He noted that "I will pay for a small refrigerator & microwave, unless HUD can supply one. Need this for special dietetic, salt free and fat free foods, I will pay for it, if need be. Can no longer eat commercially prepared foods in cafeteria." ( Id.

About a week after HUD received the accommodation request and supporting medical documentation, Linda Grant, Director of CPD's Management Division, called a meeting with Hugh Allen, plaintiff's team leader (Def.'s Ex. 6 (Allen Aff.) at 7) and several other HUD officials to discuss plaintiff's requests. (Def.'s Ex. 7 (Grant Aff.) at 4-5.) The HUD officials decided that Allen would order the requested ordinary office supplies, and according to Grant, Allen told plaintiff that further medical documentation was required for several of Pantazes' other requested accommodations, although Grant was "not sure exactly when [Allen] did this I would believe it was shortly after our meeting." (Def.'s Ex. 7 (Grant Aff.) at 5.) However, Allen states unequivocally that "I never talked to the Complainant about medical documentation," and asserts that "it would have been someone in Linda Grant's division that would have made the Complainant aware that he needed to provide more medical documentation. This information may have been conveyed to the Complainant in August 2000 or shortly thereafter." (Def.'s Ex. 6 (Allen Aff.) at 8.) Regardless of this conflicting testimony, the record shows that Allen did not even order basic office supplies for plaintiff, such as a magnifying glass, writing implements, and paper, until late May (Def.'s Ex. 5 (purchase order)), although Allen claims this two-month delay was required in order to determine what supplies were already available within the division and that plaintiff had received some supplies in the interim. (Def.'s Ex. 6 at 5-6.)

Plaintiff contends that, other than a few contacts with Allen about basic supplies, he heard nothing about his accommodation requests for the four months after returning to work. In August 2000, however, Pantazes was directed to resubmit his accommodation request on HUD Form 1000. (Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 4.) Allen confirmed that he only spoke with plaintiff about office supplies, and Allen could not recall ever mentioning Form 1000 or the need for further paperwork to Pantazes. Allen nonetheless acknowledged that it would be "my responsibility to make management and the administrative support or staff aware of any requests and then ask for assistance in addressing and assessing the [accommodation] requests." (Def.'s Ex. 6 at 6-8, 11.) Grant's testimony contradicts Allen's statement, since she claims that she mentioned to Allen "the need for a formal request so that we could get information from [plaintiff's] doctor to explain why he needed the items requested," and asserts that "I recall Mr. Allen having conversations over time with the Complainant regarding this information and we never received it." (Def.'s Ex. 7 (Grant Aff.) at 5-6.) She maintains it was Allen's responsibility to inform plaintiff of the need for a HUD 1000 form. ( Id. at 6 ("Mr. Allen would have been the person to communicate this information about the need to have the Complainant submit a formal request to provide more detailed medical information.").) She claims that plaintiff is incorrect in contending that he was never told to submit a Form 1000 until August, asserting that "I remember mentioning this to Mr. Allen as well as the Complainant directly." ( Id.

But she has no idea when she did that. ( Id.

The balance of her statement indicates, however, that she interacted primarily with Allen and not directly with Pantazes. ( Id. at 6-7.) Within days of when he claims he was told to submit a Form 1000, Pantazes promptly did so, and thereafter, Allen, as plaintiff's team leader, signed the form on August 10, 2000. ( See Pl.'s Ex. 7 (Form 1000).)

However, HUD staff promptly lost the Form 1000 and the accompanying 26 pages of attachments which Pantazes had already submitted on three prior occasions during the preceding five months. (Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 4; Ex. 7.) At this point, Pantazes submitted his documentation for the fourth time. (Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 4.) After another delay of several months, Pantazes was informed on December 5, 2000, by Linda Johnson, Chief of the Human Resources Division, that his HUD 1000 form could not be processed until he signed a medical release. Apparently in the interim, Johnson had been communicating with Pantazes' supervisor about getting such a release signed, but no action had been taken. (Def.'s Ex. 7 (Grant Aff.) at 8.) Pantazes had been told nothing of the need for such a release. (Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 5.) Once Johnson contacted Pantazes directly, plaintiff tried to get the required form as directed by Johnson, but the designated HR contact person never returned his messages and was not in the office at the time Johnson had designated for Pantazes to pick up the form. ( Id.

Finally, Pantazes bypassed the contact person, found someone else in HR to get him the form, and he signed it immediately. ( Id.

In September 2000 HUD claims it outfitted plaintiff's computer with and provided him training on MAGic, "HUD's standard software provided to low-vision users for screen magnification capability." (Def.'s Ex. 8 (Weathers (Acting Director, Customer Service Division, Office of Technology Operations) Decl.) at 2.) Plaintiff, however, "has no memory of this whatsoever and I believe I would recall it if it had been done." (Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Pantazes Decl.) at 3.) Plaintiff does not dispute, however, that in that month HUD installed a large screen monitor at his workstation. (Def.'s Ex. 8 at 2; Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 3.) In any event, neither party maintains that the MAGic software was on plaintiff's computer during the following two years. (Def.'s Ex. 8 at 2-3 (contending MAGic was removed at plaintiff's direction); Pl.'s Ex. 3 at 6-7.)

In October 2000 Pantazes submitted further medical documentation to his supervisors. Opthamological specialists at Johns Hopkins Hospital had evaluated plaintiff in order "to provide assistance and recommendations to Mr. Pantazes to maintain his employment." In their letter, the doctors suggested solutions to "greatly enhance [plaintiff's] work" by addressing "difficulties with restricted field vision in the performance of everyday tasks specifically reading his computer screen and overhead projector presentations at work." They recommended the software Zoomtext Level 2 (at a cost of $595), which enlarges computer text, reverses its color to white on black, and provides speech output. They further recommended a program to provide variable speed speech output of text, as well as bioptic glasses. (Pl.'s Ex. 13 (Oct. 12, 2000 letter from Wilmer Opthalmological Institute); see also Pl.'s Ex. 12 (June 13, 2002 letter from Hopkins' Dr. Park (explaining doctors' recommended accommodations).)

Eleven months after plaintiff submitted his accommodation request, a HUD representative, Deborah Rizzo, contacted plaintiff to discuss his situation and needs in February 2001. ( Id. She arranged for plaintiff to be evaluated by Kathy Eng, an ergonomics vision specialist at the USDA Target Center. (Def.'s Ex. 10 (Rizzo Decl.) at ΒΆ 7.) After overcoming several scheduling difficulties, Eng performed a needs assessment for reasonable accommodations with Mr. Pantazes on March 7, 2001. The Target Center's recommendations were guided by the principle that they should be "cost effective with the employee's health and safety as the highest priority." The Center subsequently informed Rizzo that it "supports the accommodation recommendations made by [plaintiff's] medical team." (Pl.'s Ex. 11 (USDA's April 18, 2001 letter).) Similarly, HUD's consultant, Federal Occupational Health physician Dr. Neal Presant, evaluated plaintiff's requested accommodations and spoke with his various physicians. He supported the Target Center's decision to defer to the recommendations of plaintiff's opthamological specialists concerning ...

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