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Social Security applicant’s ADA claim barred

An employee who applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits claiming to be unable to work because of a disabling condition could not hold her former employer liable for failing to reasonably accommodate her disabilities, a U.S. magistrate judge has ruled.

The defendant employer argued that the plaintiff could not perform the essential functions of her job and thus was not a “qualified individual with a disability” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“I conclude that no reasonable juror could reconcile her position in this ADA litigation with her position in the SSDI process,” Rhode Island’s Judge Lincoln D. Almond wrote.

Almond’s recommendation that the employer be awarded summary judgment was later adopted by U.S. District Court Chief Judge William E. Smith.

The 19-page decision is Pena v. Honeywell International Inc.

The plaintiff was represented by Mark P. Gagliardi and Alicia M. Connor, both of Providence. The defendant employer was represented by Providence attorneys Neal J. McNamara, Jessica Schachter Jewell and Aaron F. Nadich.

Work-related anxiety

Defendant Honeywell’s Cranston manufacturing facility is comprised of several production/assembly areas. In the molding department, the defendant manufactures finished goods and works in process for assembly.

Plaintiff Mayra Pena, a machine operator and associate assembler, frequently worked in the respiratory department, and in the molding department for four hours a day, two to three times a week.

In 2012, the employer decided that all employees who worked in the production and assembly areas should be cross-trained to work in all departments.

On March 8, 2013, the plaintiff provided a letter from her psychiatrist, Dr. James Greer, dated March 4, 2013, that stated: “Currently [the plaintiff] is reporting exacerbation of her anxiety symptoms which are interfering with her ability to function. She 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.”

Greer’s note did not explain how the molding department exacerbated the plaintiff’s anxiety symptoms when no other department had that effect.

The plaintiff was informed that the note was not sufficient, and thus she would not be excused from working in the molding department as scheduled.

In response, the plaintiff told the Honeywell personnel she was going home and called her daughter to pick her up. The plaintiff never returned to work after March 8, 2013.

The plaintiff applied for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits on Sept. 20, 2013. On her SSDI application, which was completed under the penalty of perjury, the plaintiff stated: “I became unable to work because of my disabling condition on March 8, 2013.” The plaintiff further declared on her SSDI application: “I am still disabled.”

Based on her statements made in her SSDI application, an administrative law judge determined that the plaintiff had somatoform disorder and was totally disabled as of her last day of work.

“The claimant has been under a disability as defined in the Social Security Act since March 8, 2013, the alleged onset date of disability,” the ALJ wrote.

The plaintiff received SSDI benefits retroactive to March 8, 2013.

When the plaintiff sued the defendant employer under the ADA in April 2015, she was asked during a deposition about the statements in her SSDI application.

The plaintiff answered, “The thing is that from that date, the dose of medication for the depression was increased, and also I also got four more pills because of the tachycardia, and also I got medication to help me sleep.”

The plaintiff was further asked at her deposition whether, by her statement, she meant that she was unable to do any work, to which she replied, “Yes, at that time when I stated that, yes, because I was under a lot of medications, and my depression increased.”

The plaintiff filed for bankruptcy in September 2014, and in the course of that proceeding she again stated that she was not employed and that she was disabled.

Irreconcilable positions

The plaintiff contended that she would have been able to continue working if granted the reasonable accommodation of not being assigned to the molding department. Her psychiatrist’s letter noted that she was “completely capable of working” in settings other than the molding department.

In Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999 held that when a trial judge is faced with an ADA plaintiff’s previous sworn statement asserting total disability, it should require an explanation from the plaintiff of any apparent inconsistency with the necessary elements of an ADA claim.

“The Cleveland decision requires Plaintiff to adequately explain the apparent contradiction created by her position in this ADA litigation that she would have been able to continue working on or after March 8, 2013 if reasonably accommodated by Honeywell and her position in the SSDI process that she was too disabled to do any work as of March 8, 2013,” Almond said.

“Plaintiff’s position in this litigation is irreconcilably at odds with her Application for and receipt of SSDI benefits,” he added.

“Applying Cleveland, I conclude that no reasonable juror could reconcile that position with her Application for and receipt of SSDI benefits with a disability onset date of March 8, 2013, and thus Plaintiff has not presented an explanation sufficient to defeat summary judgment,” Almond concluded.

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