by Timothy K. Baldwin
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit (whose rulings apply to all Rhode Island employers) recently ruled an employee couldn’t establish she could still perform her job when she had previously sworn under oath—when applying for Social Security disability income (SSDI) benefits—she was totally disabled. In affirming the lower court’s judgment against the employee, the 1st Circuit focused on whether she provided an adequate explanation for how she could perform her job and yet still be totally disabled.
Employee claims she cannot work at assigned station
Employee “MP” worked as a machine operator and assembler at Honeywell International, Inc. The manufacturing facility had several different stations, including a molding department—which was the most rigorous station because it ran 24 hours a day and emitted its products at a faster pace.
Over the years, MP usually worked at other stations, but Honeywell instituted a new policy requiring employees to have training in all departments so it could respond quickly to customer demand. As part of this new policy, it assigned her to the molding department, and she began to claim adverse health effects.
Soon after MP started working at the molding department, she took a medical leave for two months that she attributed to seasonal depression. She went back to work at the molding department for a month but then explained to her supervisor that she didn’t want to work there because it was harmful to her emotionally.
In response, Honeywell asked MP to provide a letter from her doctor, which she did. The letter stated she “is reporting exacerbation of her anxiety symptoms which are interfering with her ability to function . . . and reports that these specifically occur when she is being sent to the molding room as opposed to the more typical duties to which she is accustomed.” The doctor concluded MP “is completely capable of working in other settings,” but the letter didn’t have a diagnosis and relied mostly on her self-reported symptoms. It also didn’t explain how she could work in other departments but not the molding department.
Based on the gaps in the doctor’s letter, Honeywell determined it couldn’t ascertain what accommodations MP needed to perform her job. It told her the molding department was the only work available to her, and she would have to go home if she didn’t want to work there. In response, she left work and never returned.
Employer tries to find a reasonable accommodation
After MP left work, Honeywell sent her an accommodation form. It also followed up with her doctor to request medical documentation and “clarify how [her] anxiety symptoms could allow her to work in many areas of the plant, while interfering with her ability to function in one area of the plant, the molding department, for which she is equally qualified and trained.”
Eventually, her doctor wrote back to inform Honeywell MP was diagnosed with “major depressive disorder, recurrent, severe.” The letter stated she wanted to return to work and asserted “with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that continued assignment to the more recent work setting will result in worsening stress and further exacerbation of her condition.” It didn’t explain, however, why she could work anywhere at the facility except the molding department. Once again, Honeywell requested medical records to explain how her symptoms prevented her from working in the molding department specifically.
In response, her doctor sent another letter, noting MP “has reported repeatedly and consistently that the molding room was stressful because of . . . increased noise levels, chemical odors, and the presence of robotics.” The doctor concluded, “I cannot specifically identify particular issues there which might exacerbate her stress, but can state with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that there is a direct causal relationship between her working in that setting and the exacerbation of her symptoms.”
Once again, Honeywell pushed back, noting MP still hadn’t explained a connection between her diagnosis and the molding department. According to the company, all of its departments had the same issues the doctor described, including increased noise levels, odors, and robotics. It also explained that all employees (including MP) needed to rotate through the molding department.
The company asked for further medical information but never heard back from MP. Three months after her last day at the facility, it terminated her employment for job abandonment.
Applying for Social Security disability benefits after leaving job
Meanwhile, approximately six months after MP last worked for Honeywell, she applied to the federal government for SSDI benefits.
The federal statutory scheme for SSDI benefits defines a disability as the inability to do any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental “impairment” that can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months. The “impairment” must be severe, leaving the person applying for benefits unable to do previous work or any other substantial gainful activity.
As part of MP’s SSDI application, she certified under oath that she “became unable to work because of [her] disabling condition on March 8, 2013 [the last day she worked at the employer’s facility],” and was “still disabled.” Ultimately, the federal government granted her application for SSDI benefits, finding she had a somatoform disorder and was totally disabled as of the last day she worked at Honeywell’s facility.
ADA lawsuit and the admission of total disability
Shortly before the federal government awarded MP SSDI benefits, she sued Honeywell under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation and terminating her employment based on her disability.
The ADA has a different statutory scheme from the federal statute that governs SSDI benefits. Under the ADA, an employer cannot terminate an employee because of her disability if she is a “qualified individual”—meaning “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the [job] that such individual holds or desires.” This differs from the definition used for SSDI benefits, which requires a person applying for disability benefits to “be physically or mentally impaired such that she cannot do her previous work, or any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy.”
Clearly, there’s a possibility that a person who qualifies for SSDI benefits as disabled might not be capable of performing her job with reasonable accommodations and therefore would not be protected by the ADA. During the pretrial phase of MP’s lawsuit, Honeywell inquired into this possibility. During her deposition, it asked her several times about her SSDI application, “and [she] repeatedly stated that she was totally disabled as of [her last day of work with the company]. She did not state that she could have performed the essential functions of her prior job with reasonable accommodations.”
Despite several opportunities to clarify her remarks during her deposition, MP didn’t explain the discrepancy between her total disability claim for SSDI benefits and her claim under the ADA that she could still perform her job. Long after her deposition in the ADA case, however, she filed an affidavit with the federal district court contradicting her deposition testimony. She asserted her attorney had advised her to use her last day at Honeywell’s facility as the onset date of her disability, that she would have said yes if asked during her SSDI proceeding if she needed a reasonable accommodations to work, and that she only applied for SSDI benefits because her condition worsened after she left the employer.
Based on MP’s admission in her deposition that she was totally disabled, the federal district court rejected her ADA claim, and she appealed to the 1st Circuit.
No good explanation given for earlier total disability claim
The 1st Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s ruling based on MP’s admission of total disability. It explained that a disability claim in an SSDI application doesn’t foreclose a finding that an employee can still perform her job with a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. It’s possible for a SSDI claim and an ADA claim to coexist because the SSDI statutory framework (unlike the ADA) doesn’t take into account the possibility of a reasonable accommodation, and SSDI applies many presumptions that result in automatic findings of disability, regardless of whether the person can actually work. In other words, under the SSDI regime, a person can be found totally disabled and yet still be able to work—which is different from the ADA regime.
The 1st Circuit stressed, however, that when an employee claims total disability under oath in an SSDI application, she must provide an explanation for “any apparent inconsistency” with her ADA claim that she could “perform the essential functions of her job, with or without ‘reasonable accommodation.” The appeals court found she failed to offer a sufficient reason for the discrepancy, given her repeated admissions that she was totally disabled as of the date she left Honeywell’s manufacturing facility, nor did she adequately explain how she could still work given her total disability. It also rejected her attempt to rely on the affidavit she filed contradicting her earlier deposition testimony. According to the court, an employee cannot attempt to negate deposition answers with later-filed affidavits unless she gives an adequate explanation for the change in testimony, which did not happen in this case.
Without total disability, jury would have decided on reasonable accommodation
Although MP’s ADA claim failed because of her total disability, the 1st Circuit observed that if she had been able to show an ability to work, it would have been up to a jury to decide whether Honeywell offered a reasonable accommodation. When she asked not to work in the molding department, the company responded by the telling her all employees must work there. The 1st Circuit affirmed the federal district court’s reasoning that “whether rotation to the Molding Department was an essential function of [her] job and whether [she] participated in good faith in the interactive process” were questions she would have been allowed to present to the jury if the case had proceeded to trial. The 1st Circuit endorsed this reasoning, notwithstanding Honeywell’s repeated requests for MP to provide medical records substantiating her inability to work in the molding department, which she never adequately answered. Bottom line for employers
The interrelationship between disability definitions under the ADA and the federal SSDI statutory regime is complex and counterintuitive. When an employee claims total disability in an SSDI application, it can provide some evidence she isn’t capable of performing her current job within the meaning of the ADA, with or without a reasonable accommodation. The key question will be whether she can provide an adequate explanation for why she should be considered disabled for the purposes of SSDI but not for the ADA.
You should also remain aware of the need to document the rationale for why a potential accommodation presents an undue hardship. In this case, the employee’s doctor never gave the company a satisfactory explanation of why her disability prevented her from working in the molding department, but the court still found a jury should decide whether removing her from molding department duty constituted a reasonable accommodation.
To discuss this case further with Tim, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org