Employment-Second Circuit Rules That Statements Made In Applications For Disability Benefits Do Not Prevent Claim Under ADA

In De Rosa v. National Envelope Corporation, No. 08-2562 (2nd Circuit 2010), the plaintiff -who worked as a customer service representative-developed a medical condition in his right leg, and was subsequently terminated by his employer. The plaintiff sued the employer for wrongful termination, under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”). The district court granted summary judgment for the employer, and the plaintiff appealed. At issue were certain statements that the plaintiff had made in applications for disability benefits, which could be seen as contradictory to an ADA claim.

In an application for Social Security disability benefits, the plaintiff had said “I became unable to work because of my disabling condition on October 13, 2004” and “I am still disabled.” In a subsequent portion of this application, the plaintiff answered the question, “[h]ow do your illnesses, injuries or conditions limit your ability to work?” He replied “[c]an’t write, type, sit, stand, walk & lift, reach, grab, bend.” On a different form, issued by New York State, in a part dealing with social activities, the plaintiff indicated that he was “no longer able to speak on phone or work with computer [due] to pain.”

The question faced by the Court was whether these statements, which indicated that the plaintiff was disabled, prevent the plaintiff from establishing one essential element of his ADA claim, namely, whether the plaintiff could perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation (here, such prevention from establishing this element would occur under the theory of “judicial estoppel”). In dealing with this question, the Court said that the mere fact that a plaintiff files for Social Security disability benefits-thereby representing that he is disabled-does not create a presumption that the plaintiff is not able to perform the essential functions of his job, and thus, is not able to prove an ADA claim. However, the statement made in the filing may require an explanation as to why the plaintiff can nevertheless perform his job. In this case, the Court concluded that the particular statements made were not necessarily inconsistent with the plaintiff still being able to do his job, for example, the Court felt that the statement the he was “no longer able to speak on phone or work with computer [due] to pain.” related to his social interactions, not his capability to perform the essential functions of his job. The Court ruled that the statements on the applications did not bar the plaintiff’s ADA claim, at least at the summary judgment stage (under the theory of “judicial estoppel” or otherwise). It overturned the district court’s summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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