Employment Law Daily Contrary statement to SSA estopped mechanic from claiming he could work with accommodations
Thursday, August 25, 2016

Contrary statement to SSA estopped mechanic from claiming he could work with accommodations

By Matt Pavich, J.D. A mechanic who swore before the Social Security Administration (SSA) that he was unable to work was estopped from arguing at trial that he could work with reasonable accommodations, because he had a reasonable accommodation when he made his statement to the SSA, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, affirming summary judgment (Kovaco v. Rockbestos-Surprenant Cable Corp., August 22, 2016, Cabranes, J.). The mechanic testified that starting in 2008, he was subjected to discrimination on the basis of his Romanian national origin. This conduct included, but was not limited to, co-workers referring to him as a "third-world countryman" and comments that he should go back to Romania. The employer refused to investigate his complaints. In 2009, the mechanic gave the employer a medical note recommending light-duty restrictions that could help a deteriorating condition in his legs and feet. The employer allowed him to use an electric cart, but the mechanic continued to have problems and took FMLA leave. When he returned, he gave another medical note recommending light-duty work, only to have his supervisor throw the note to the ground and aver that he did not need "another handicap in" his workplace. Termination. On March 19, 2010, the mechanic used an electric cart that had been removed from service due to a defective battery. He removed the OSHA lockout tag and began using the cart, but the battery soon died. He initially lied about using the cart and was suspended. During the suspension, he applied for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits and stated that because of various ailments, he was unable to work. The employer soon terminated him and several months later, the SSA determined that the worker had been disabled as of March 24, 2010, five days before he was fired. In that determination, the SSA stated that the mechanic’s severe impairments limited him to sedentary work and that he could lift no more than 20 pounds. Lawsuit. The mechanic filed suit, alleging that the employer had discriminated against him on the basis of his age, national origin and disability in violation of the ADEA, Title VII, the ADA, and the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA). The district court granted summary judgment to the employer on the discriminatory discharge claims and after a trial, the mechanic appealed the partial grant of summary judgment. Appellate jurisdiction. As an initial matter, the appeals court found it had jurisdiction to hear the hostile workplace claims, but not the CFEPA claim. The mechanic’s notice of appeal stated that he appealed the grant of summary judgment on the discrimination claims under the ADA, Title VII and the ADEA, thereby giving the employer notice that the mechanic intended to appeal the judgment. The notice failed, however, to even mention the CFEPA claim, and, thus, the court found it had no jurisdiction over it. District court’s reasoning was flawed. The district court ruled that the mechanic was estopped from claiming he was a qualified individual under the ADA, because he had sworn to the SSA that his condition rendered him unable to work. The appeals court found that this reasoning was erroneous, noting that the Supreme Court has held that an assertion before the SSA that is inconsistent with an ADA claim will not lead to estoppel if the employee can show that he had a good-faith belief in the statement to the SSA. In ruling against the mechanic, the district court relied on both the inconsistent statements and the SSA’s finding that the mechanic was limited to sedentary work. The appeals court found that this reasoning was erroneous, partly because the SSA findings and conclusions had no relation to the position taken by the mechanic before the SSA; at no time did the mechanic assert that he could only do sedentary work or that he had a lifting limit. Moreover, the mechanic could, and did assert that he could perform essential job functions with a reasonable accommodation. Thus, the mechanic had not taken clearly inconsistent positions that would estop him from pursuing his ADA claim. But mechanic still estopped from asserting that he was qualified. However, the court ruled that he was still estopped. When the employee filed his SSA claim, he was regularly using the electric cart, a fact discussed at length in the trial. The court thus found that the mechanic had taken wholly inconsistent positions. Before the SSA, although he had access to the electric cart, he claimed he was unable to work. At trial, he claimed that he could work if he had access to the electric cart. Thus, the appellate court found that the employee had failed to explain the reason for the inconsistent positions and ruled that he was judicially estopped from asserting that he could perform his essential job functions. Mechanic abandoned hostile workplace claims. Finally, the court ruled that the mechanic had abandoned his hostile workplace claims brought under the ADA, Title VII, and the ADEA. The employer moved for summary judgment on all claims, including the hostile workplace claims, contained in the amended complaint in November 2012. The mechanic’s reply brief, however, failed to mention the hostile work environment claims. He did not raise the claims for almost a year and the court therefore found that he had abandoned the claims.

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