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Senatore v. Lynch

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 21, 2016

HOLLY SENATORE, Plaintiff,
v.
LORETTA E. LYNCH, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER United States District Judge.

         The Federal Bureau of Investigation hired Plaintiff Holly Senatore as an Intelligence Analyst. As a condition of employment, the FBI requires all new analysts to successfully complete a three-month training course. Senatore, who was diagnosed with a neurological condition at birth, requested various accommodations for her disability before beginning the course. The FBI agreed to nearly all of Senatore's requests, but denied her requests for an in-class note taker and to use notes on course exams. The FBI denied the former request because it did not have a note taker on staff, but instead allowed Senatore to audiotape the class sessions. It categorically denied the latter request, citing a need to assess the competency of its new recruits. Not content with the FBI's response, Senatore chose not to report to the training course and requested, among other things, reassignment to a position that did not require her to complete the course. The FBI declined these requests and, after Senatore again refused to attend the training course, terminated her employment. Senatore filed suit under the Rehabilitation Act, alleging that the FBI discriminated against her because of her disability. Before the Court is the FBI's Motion for Summary Judgment. For the reasons below, the Court will grant the motion with respect to all claims and dismiss the case.

         I. Background

         A. Senatore's Medical Condition

         Holly Senatore was diagnosed with hydrocephalus as an infant. Def.'s Statement of Facts (“SOF”) ¶ 2. Hydrocephalus is a condition marked by a “permanent, excessive accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid” in the brain. Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, for Summary Judgment (“MSJ”), Ex. 6, (Physician's Letter to FBI). This accumulation results in increased pressure inside the skull, which in turn impacts the brain's structure. Id. Symptoms of hydrocephalus vary, but generally include motor problems, headaches, and disorientation. Id. In addition to these symptoms, Senatore also suffers from seizures and learning disabilities that may have been caused by the surgeries she has undergone to treat her condition. Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s MSJ (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), Ex. 1 (Dep. of Steven Rider), at 28, 44. These learning disabilities include “situational memory loss, occasional inattention to detail and retrieval of information, [and a] different pattern of learning.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 6.

         B. Senatore's Employment with the FBI

         The FBI hired Senatore as an Intelligence Analyst (“IA”) in September 2010. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 3-4. The FBI requires all newly hired IA's to complete an eleven-week Intelligence Basic Course (“IBC”). Id. at ¶ 7. The IBC ensures that new recruits like Senatore “have acquired the core competencies associated with the IA job.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 5 (Decl. of Lisa Crowder), at 3. In a letter to Senatore offering her the IA position, the FBI noted that “[f]ailure to successfully complete the IBC training may result in dismissal from the FBI.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 4, at 2.

         Senatore began working at the FBI training academy near Washington, D.C. in October 2010, but was not scheduled to undergo IBC training until January 2011. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 5, at 4. During this interim period, the FBI gave Senatore a temporary work assignment. Def.'s SOF ¶ 6. In November 2010, Senatore informed her temporary supervisor, Floyd Wiltz, of her condition and told him that she would need accommodations during IBC training. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 3 (Decl. of Floyd Wiltz), at 4. Wiltz then contacted Lisa Crowder, the chief of the unit in charge of IBC training, to discuss accommodations for Senatore. Def.'s SOF ¶ 17. Crowder suggested that Senatore first visit the IBC facility prior to the beginning of the course in order to familiarize herself with the program. Id. ¶ 18. Senatore did so on December 16 and observed several classes. Id. ¶ 19. According to Senatore, Crowder introduced her to one class as a “college student, ” and told the students there that she gets “lost and confused easily.” Pl.'s Opp'n MSJ, Ex. 4 (Decl. of Holly Senatore), at ¶¶ 3-4. During a subsequent conversation, Crowder purportedly told Senatore: “If you are bad at verbal direction and if that is the type of accommodation that you need, then maybe the FBI isn't the place for you.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 28.

         On December 20, 2010, Senatore formally requested the following nine accommodations for the upcoming course:

(1) Written, rather than verbal, directions and instructions;
(2) Special consideration for meeting deadlines for assignments;
(3) An “alternative test format” that excludes “multiple choice, ” “True/False, ” “Fill in the blank, ” and “matching” questions;
(4) A note taker during class;
(5) The ability to use notes during the exam;
(6) The ability to take the exam on a computer;
(7) Extra time on the exam;
(8) A separate, quiet area to work for exams; and
(9) Preferential seating in the front of the class.

Def.'s SOF ¶ 22. The FBI agreed to all but two of these requests: It refused to provide Senatore with a note taker, or to allow her to use notes on examinations. The use of notes, according to Crowder, “would have prevented an objective evaluation of Ms. Senatore's competency to perform IA work.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 5, at 7. Notably, the FBI provided Senatore with every accommodation that Senatore's physician recommended at the time. See Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 6, at 1-2.

         Not content with the FBI's response, Senatore e-mailed Crowder and other FBI officials, writing that she was “being set up for failure” without having a note taker or the ability to use notes during examinations. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 12. She further stated that she would “appreciate” a job within the FBI that did not require her to attend IBC training. Id. Several hours later, Senatore sent Crowder another e-mail stating that she would not be attending the IBC training at all. Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 13.

         After failing to attend IBC training as scheduled in January 2011, Senatore asked the FBI to reconsider its refusal to provide her with a note taker and to allow her to use notes on exams. Def.'s SOF ¶ 36. Senatore submitted a supplemental letter from her physician, who recommended that “[she] have a note-taker . . . [which] will free [her] from having to write quickly and play catch-up and miss something important.” Def's MSJ, Ex. 16, at 2. As an alternative to this recommendation, the FBI informed Senatore that it was seeking a security waiver to allow her to audiotape her IBC classes. Id. Senatore's physician also noted that “the best and most successful method of testing for [her] . . . [includes] the use of personal and/or class notes to enhance her recall.” Id. at 1. The FBI, however, reiterated its position that allowing Senatore to use notes on her exam would “fundamentally alter the ability of the FBI to measure her understanding and proficiency level in performing critical job-related skills.” Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 38-40. The FBI then rescheduled Senatore to begin IBC training on February 28, 2011.

         In the course of her correspondence with the agency regarding her requested accommodations, Senatore also requested both a medical hardship transfer to Knoxville, Tennessee and to be placed on “leave-without-pay” (“LWOP”) status. Id. ¶ 45-48. Senatore had lived in Knoxville before joining the FBI. Id. She supported these requests with a letter from a different physician, Dr. Steven Rider of the Knoxville Neurology Clinic, who had been treating Senatore “for her history of epilepsy.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 21. Dr. Rider wrote that granting Senatore's transfer and LWOP requests was “a medical necessity, ” and that failing to do so “would be hazardous to her health and would put her at risk for seizures becoming further exacerbated or problematic.” Id. He later acknowledged in his deposition, however, that Senatore could have gotten the treatment she needed elsewhere, and that he even offered to help her transfer her care to Washington, D.C. See Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 37, at 20:14, 25:8. The FBI granted Senatore's LWOP request for the period of January 16 to February 26, two days before her rescheduled IBC training was set to begin. Def.'s SOF ¶ 48. The FBI later denied her request for a medical hardship transfer on March 10, 2011, citing the availability of appropriate specialty physicians in the Washington, D.C. area. Id. at ¶ 55; Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 34.

         At no time during her LWOP did Senatore attempt to transfer her medical care from Knoxville to Washington, D.C. Def.'s SOF ¶ 57; Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 1 (“Dep. of Holly Senatore”), 75-76.[1] She did, however, request an additional three months of LWOP on February 17, 2011. Def.'s SOF ¶ 56. The FBI denied this request a week later, on February 24, and informed Senatore that she was expected to attend IBC training beginning on February 28. Id. at ¶ 58; Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 23. Senatore did not do so, Def.'s SOF ¶ 54, claiming that she was being treated by her neurologist in Tennessee, Pl.'s SOF ¶ 54.

         The FBI placed Senatore on absent-without-leave (“AWOL”) status after she failed to report to IBC training. Def.'s SOF ¶ 60. It then terminated her on March 21, 2011 “due to Senatore not reporting to attend [IBC training] at the FBI Academy on 2/28/2011.” Def.'s MSJ, Ex. 32 (FBI Performance Based Recommendation and Action ...


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