Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals Holds That Plaintiff Failed to Adequately Explain How He Receives SSD Benefits and Can Still Be Able to Work

EEOC could not explain how employee could claim ability to work with accommodation while getting SSDI payments.

Michael Turner worked for Greater Baltimore Medical Center (GBMC) as a unit secretary since 1984. In 2005, Turner was hospitalized for necrotizing fasciitis, which is a life-threatening condition. He later suffered a stroke during the same year. Turner also suffered from diabetes.

On December 29, 2005, he applied for SSDI benefits stating, “I became unable to work because of my disabling condition on January 15, 2005. I am still disabled.” His application was approved on January 22, 2006 and he was awarded benefits retroactive to January 15, 2005.

Notwithstanding the fact that he received SSDI benefits, Turner notified GMBC in January 2006 that he intended to return to work. His doctor, Rosenblum, completed a form indicating that Turner could return to work as a part-time unit secretary as early as March 6, 2006, subject to certain restrictions involving walking, bending, and lifting. He also underwent an exam with GBMC’s physician, who indicated that Turner could return to work on a limited part-time basis in a low-volume area that did not require multitasking.

GBMC advised Turner that it could not provide him with a position unless he could return to the same full-time job he performed before he went out on disability. A file clerk position was available but Turner was not interested in that job since it required mostly standing and walking. He applied for the part-time unit secretary position but was not offered the position because of the restrictions from GBMC’s physician.

A few months later, Dr. Rosenblum lifted all restrictions and indicated that Turner could work a full 40-hour week. GBMC terminated Turner’s position on June 30, 2006. Following his termination, Turner volunteered over 1,100 hours of his time to GBMC and applied to 28 positions at GBMC, ten of which he was qualified for. However, Turner never notified the Social Security Administration about his improved medical condition, which was one of the requirements on his disability application.

Turner filed a charge with the EEOC contending that the Medical Center violated the ADA by terminating his employment. The EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that GBMC violated the ADA and filed an enforcement action. The Fourth Circuit reviewed the leading case of Cleveland v. Policy Management System Corp 120 F.3d 513, (5th Cir. 1997). That case held that a plaintiff should have the opportunity to explain the apparent inconsistency between asserting he or she can work and claiming at the same time entitlement to SSD benefits.

The Court noted, “There can be little doubt that the conflict between Mr. Turner’s SSDI application and his ability to work with or without reasonable accommodation is genuine. . . Taken together, the SSDI application and documentation reasonably communicated that Mr. Turner was and would continue to be totally or almost-totally disabled.” The Court added, “Mr. Turner did not revise his statements to SSDI, and apparently never notified the SSA about a change in his condition.”

The EEOC argued that Mr. Turner eventually participated in the Ticket to Work program, which the EEOC contended resolved any conflict with his disability application. But the Court respondend that that this happened in 2009, almost two years after Turner filed his ADA charge. The Court also rejected the EEOC’s argument that Turner’s mere “passive receipt” of SSD benefits does not mandate the need to explain inconsistency. The Court said, “But Cleveland was not principally concerned with distinguishing between active and passive representations. Rather, its focus was resolving factual conflicts generated by contradictory representations. As already explained, the factual conflict here is unresolvable.”

This case may be found at EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Inc. 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 7851 (4th Cir. 2012).

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