No second helpings: limits on ADA claimants collecting disability

Guest blogger, Mark Fitzgerald, writes about the tension between employment disability discrimination claims under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) and claims for disability benefits. The legal concept of “estoppel” in such circumstances generally holds that an employee cannot certify to being disabled in order to obtain disability benefits, while claiming in court that she is not disabled and qualified to work. Mark is a member of the Education Law Group with a practice emphasis in Labor and Employment. Click here to find out more about Mark’s background and contact information.

 In a case that underscores the federal courts’ heightened scrutiny of employment disability discrimination claims following a plaintiff’s successful application for Social Security Disability, the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted summary judgment for the employer because plaintiff-employee was estopped from raising claims under the ADA  after successfully applying for Social Security Disability benefits.

In an ADA employment discrimination case, a plaintiff must initially be able to show

a “prima face” case:  (1) that she has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, (2) is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations, and (3) was subject to some adverse action as a result of the disability. In Jones v Southcentral Employment Corp., 488 F. Supp. 2d 475 (M.D. Pa. 2007), the employer sought summary judgment because plaintiff’s actions and the facts leading up to her discrimination claim prevented her from meeting this initial burden.

The employer argued that settled principles of judicial estoppel, a doctrine that prevents a litigant from asserting a position inconsistent with a position asserted in a previous proceeding, precludes the plaintiff from establishing an essential element of her prima facie case, namely, that she was “qualified” for the position in question.

The court agreed. In granting the motion, the Middle District relied on Cleveland v. Policy Management Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), in which the Supreme Court held that to survive summary judgment, an ADA plaintiff who previously was awarded disability benefits must provide a sufficient explanation to reconcile a sworn statement claiming “total disability” and later asserting an ability to “perform the essential functions of the job.”

Simply put, Cleveland added additional criteria to the prima facie case where judicial estoppel is implicated. Taking Cleveland a step further, Jones underscores that merely explaining away the inconsistencies of past statements is not enough to satisfy the Cleveland criteria.

In an attempt to explain away her conflicting claims, the plaintiff in Jones ineffectively argued that in contrast to an ADA claim, the Social Security Administration does not take into account reasonable accommodations in evaluating qualifications for benefits and, therefore, the two claims should be considered mutually exclusive.

The Middle District did not buy her explanation for several reasons. Most notably, merely identifying the differences in the two statutory schemes was not enough to cure her conflicting statements. The court stressed such clear inconsistencies in prior statements had to be supported by fact. The plaintiff could not demonstrate a sufficient explanation for her prior statements, especially in light of the fact she never requested reasonable accommodations from her employer after she was injured in the first place.