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In disability discrimination lawsuit, former employee held bound by inconsistent statement made in Social Security Disability benefits application

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Under the principle of judicial estoppel, a party to a lawsuit is precluded from asserting a claim that is inconsistent with a prior statement or position. In Thompson v. Gold Medal Bakery, Inc., the First Circuit recently applied this principle in the context of a lawsuit involving claims of disability discrimination against a former employer.

Plaintiff Thompson suffered a knee injury that required surgery. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), he was entitled to twelve work weeks of unpaid leave. He requested medical leave before getting his surgery, and his employer approved his medical leave request but stated his job would be held for no longer than 12 weeks (to end on August 1, 2016) and he would be required to provide a fitness-for-duty letter from his physician before returning to work.

Thompson’s doctor’s appointment to evaluate his capacity to return to work was delayed and could not take place until after the 12-week leave period had ended. He requested an extension of his medical leave, but no extension was granted and he was terminated effective August 12, 2016. A week after his termination, the follow-up medical appointment took place; besides only one limitation (that he should avoid squatting), his doctor certified that he had achieved maximum medical improvement and that he had returned to his prior level of functioning.

Newly unemployed, Thompson applied for Social Security Disability benefits. In his August 23 SSDI application, he stated, under the pains and penalty of perjury, that he had become disabled at the time of his surgery and that he was “still disabled.” His application included such descriptions of his disability as that he was unable to do “everything” he had performed before he became disabled, he was “very unstable” and his condition affected his ability to lift, squat, bend, stand, reach, walk, sit, kneel, talk, hear, climb stairs, complete tasks, concentrate and use his hands, and that it affected his memory. Within three months, he began to receive disability benefits.

Two years later, Thompson sued his former employer alleging disability discrimination in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Massachusetts analogue, claiming his termination was based on his disability and the company had denied him a reasonable accommodation. The District Court allowed the company’s motion for summary judgment and Thompson appealed.

To prevail on an ADA claim, a disabled employee must establish that, at the time he was terminated, he was a “qualified individual,” that is, “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” The First Circuit agreed with the District Court’s finding that Thompson’s sworn statements in his application for Social Security Disability benefits judicially estopped him, or precluded him as a matter of law, from being able to argue in the federal court ADA litigation, that he was a “qualified individual” under the ADA and could have returned to work prior to his August 12 termination date. The Court’s decision was based in part on the fact that an applicant can only receive SSDI benefits after being disabled for five full calendar months and Thompson’s first SSDI benefits were distributed to him in November 2016 – three months after he was terminated. Furthermore, Thompson had never represented in his application for benefits or otherwise that he had been able to return to work at the time of his termination. Concluding that it must assume Thompson’s good faith belief in the sworn statements he made in his application for SSDI benefits, the First Circuit affirmed the District Court’s dismissal of Thompson’s disability discrimination claim.

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