The 4th Circuit CoA Ruled that the EEOC could be Estopped in an ADA Enforcement Action

In EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Inc., Michael Turner was a unit secretary at GBMC who suffered multiple serious health conditions in 2005 that first required hospitalization in January 2005. He was out of the work for most of the year and then suffered a stroke in December 2005. That month he filed an application for SSDI benefits, stating that he had been unable to work since January. The application stated that he would notify the SSA if his condition improved. Turner was granted SSDI benefits in January 2006, retroactive to January 2005. He has continued to receive the benefits. But, in January 2006, Turner notified GMBC that he wanted to return to work, and his physician indicated that the could return in a part-time position such as a file clerk. On June 1, 2006, Turner was cleared for full-time file clerk work, but was not given a position. On June 30, having not obtained any new position with GMBC, Turner was formally terminated. The EEOC filed suit on his behalf under the ADA claiming disability discrimination after Turner was able to return to work. The district court granted summary judgment for GBMC on the basis that the ADA claim was incompatible with Turner’s application for and acceptance of SSDI benefits. The Fourth Circuit affirmed in a split decision.

The ADA requires the plaintiff to be an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position. This requirement may be incompatible with the assertion for SSDI purposes that the claimant is totally disabled, and the plaintiff may be estopped from contradicting the SSDI statements. Under Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), a court should require an explanation of any apparent inconsistency between the SSDI standard and the necessary elements of an ADA claim. In previous cases, the Fourth Circuit had not found any inconsistency between ADA claims and SSDI or workers’ compensation benefits, but the analysis is fact-specific. Here, the majority found Turner’s ADA claim to be in direct conflict with his SSDI statements that he was disabled continually since 2005. Turner’s ADA claim that he could work in 2006 after improvement in his condition conflicts with his continued receipt of SSDI benefits and failure to report to SSA any change in condition. Nor could the conflict be squared by the absence of accommodations; Turner never claimed to need any.

In dissent, Judge Gregory argued that the EEOC should never be estopped by the statements of a claimant because it did not make the statements. Estoppel against the government is disfavored and is contrary to the purpose of EEOC enforcement of the ADA. Judge Gregory also argued that Turner’s SSDI benefits and ADA claim were compatible. For example, a jury could find that Turner had a good-faith belief in his SSDI assertion of disability because that is how GBMC treated him when it refused to give him his job back or to hire him for a new position despite his dozens of applications and superb work history.