A recent Louisiana district court case illustrates how an employee can be judicially estopped from succeeding in a claim for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) if he applied for social security disability benefits for the same time period.
The plaintiff in Tanner v. BD LaPlace, LLC, No. CV 17-5141, 2019 WL 1382302 (E.D. La. Mar. 27, 2019), was fired from his job as a crane operator for refusing to submit to a mandatory fitness for duty evaluation (“FFDE”) following several complaints about his workplace behavior. In response, Mr. Tanner filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that BD LaPlace discriminated against him on the basis of a believed disability when it fired him for refusing to submit to the FFDE. Mr. Tanner affirmed in this filing that he did “not have a disability but employer fired [him] for refusing to submit to a medical examination (both physical and mental) without cause or concern.” Id. at *2.
Seven months later Mr. Tanner submitted an application for social security benefits, in which he affirmed he was disabled and had stopped working on March 1, 2016, due to his disability caused by neck, ankle, and tissue injuries. The Social Security Administration (SSA) found that Mr. Tanner was disabled for social security purposes and awarded him benefits retroactive to February 10, 2016, one month before his refusal to submit to the FFDE. While he was awaiting SSA’s determination, Mr. Tanner brought the action against BD LaPlace.
The court found that Mr. Tanner had conceded in his deposition he was unable to perform the essential tasks of a crane operator due to his disabling condition. ADA plaintiffs cannot survive a motion to dismiss if they previously affirmed that they were too disabled to work and then contradictorily claim to have been fully qualified for all the requirements of their positions without a sufficient explanation. The Supreme Court has held “pursuit, and receipt, of [social security disability] benefits does not automatically estop the recipient from pursuing an ADA claim[,] [n]or does the law erect a strong presumption against the recipient’s success.” Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 797-98 (1999). [DAP advocates with be familiar with this Supreme Court case for its holding that SSA must decide whether individuals are disabled without any regard to their capabilities when given reasonable accommodations. Id. at 805. See Social Security Ruling (SSR) 00-1c.]
If plaintiffs can sufficiently explain the discrepancy, they may still be successful in ADA claims that encompass the same time periods in which SSA has determined them to be disabled. But they “cannot simply ignore the apparent contradiction that arises out of the earlier [social security] total disability claim.” Id. at 806. The Tanner court found the plaintiff had failed to give any explanation for the contradiction in his affirmations and accordingly dismissed his ADA claims against BD LaPlace.
Thanks to summer law intern Lyssa Pedersen for her excellent summary of this disability conundrum.