In its Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Syst. decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said that an application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits does not automatically kill a plaintiff’s contemporaneous assertion that he or she is capable of working with accommodations. However, the employee bears the burden of offering a logical explanation for the apparent inconsistency between the two legal proceedings. On April 26, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of an ADA failure to accommodate claim based on the plaintiff’s failure to offer such evidence.
In Pena v. Honeywell Int’l, Inc., the plaintiff left work after being required to cross-train for different roles. She then filed a SSDI application, stating that she was unable to work due to a disabling mental condition. Shortly thereafter, the plaintiff filed suit against her former employer under the ADA, alleging that she could have continued working if she had been provided reasonable accommodations. The defendant moved for dismissal of the claim, arguing that the plaintiff’s statements in her SSDI application estopped the contrary position taken in the ADA suit.
The First Circuit agreed, affirming dismissal of the claim. The court found that the plaintiff failed to meet her burden under Cleveland because she never articulated a meaningful explanation of the inconsistencies between the two legal proceedings. The First Circuit rejected the plaintiff’s assertion that she merely had to show the differences in the legal standards for SSDI benefits and ADA violations. To meet her burden of proof and avoid summary judgment, the plaintiff must offer a more substantial explanation for the divergent positions of each of her claims. When asked in her deposition to explain the inconsistencies, the plaintiff was unable to do so.
Employers faced with ADA failure to accommodate claims from former employees should check to see if the plaintiff has filed an SSDI claim, and if so, press for an explanation as to how both claims can be simultaneously maintained.