In EEOC v. Vicksburg Healthcare LLC, et al., Case No. 13-CV-895 (S.D. Miss. Aug. 27, 2015), a case we have blogged about previously here and here, Judge Keith Starrett of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi recently rejected the EEOC’s lawsuit. He entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant and against the EEOC on its disability discrimination claims, finding that the charging party was not able to perform her job duties in light of the fact she described herself as “totally disabled” in making a disability insurance claim.
This case should be of interest to employers engaged in EEOC disability discrimination litigation because it provides a potential route to summary judgment when plaintiffs claim outside of litigation that they were not able to perform their job duties because of their disabilities.
Beatrice Chambers (“Chambers”) was a nurse for Vicksburg Healthcare, LLC d/b/a River Region Medical Center (“River Region”). After taking medical leave for shoulder surgery, Chambers’ physician sent a note to River Region stating that she could return to duty as long as she was limited to “light work.” Because River Region concluded that Chambers could not perform the essential functions of her job when limited to “light work,” River Region terminated Chambers.
The day after Chambers was terminated, Chambers’ physician filled out a disability insurance claim form that stated that Chambers had a “temporary total disability.” Chambers reviewed this form and sent it to her insurer.
The EEOC filed suit on Chambers’ behalf, claiming she could perform the essential functions of her job while being limited to light duty and that her termination thus violated the ADA.
The Court’s Decision
The Court began by noting that “[t]o establish a prima facie discrimination claim under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove: (1) that he has a disability; (2) that he was qualified for the job; and (3) that he was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of his disability.” Vicksburg Healthcare, at 5. It then moved on to consider whether Chambers could prove that she was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job in light of the statement in her insurance claim that she was totally disabled. Id. at 6-7.
Judge Starrett noted that, in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 806 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court held that “‘when faced with a plaintiff’s previous sworn statement asserting ‘total disability’ or the like, the court should require an explanation of any apparent inconsistency with the necessary elements of an ADA claim.’” Id. (quoting Cleveland, 526 U.S. at 806). The Court concluded that the EEOC would, in light of Cleveland, have to present an explanation that would allow the Court to conclude that Chambers could perform the essential functions of her job despite her insurance claim. Vicksburg Healthcare, at 7.
The Court then considered the EEOC’s explanation. According to the EEOC, the fact that Chambers applied for disability benefits after her termination explained the discrepancy between her insurance claim and her litigation position. Id. at 8. The Court disagreed, finding the explanation insufficient to explain the discrepancy. Id. at 8-9. The Court thus granted summary judgment to River Region, finding that the EEOC had not met its burden of producing sufficient evidence that Chambers was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job. Id.
Implications For Employers
Individuals who are terminated because they are unable to perform their jobs due to disability often seek disability benefits through private insurers or the Social Security Administration. In the course of seeking those benefits, these individuals frequently represent that they are totally disabled or are wholly unable to do their job due to their disability. Employers involved in ADA discrimination litigation should be on the lookout for such representations and, relying on Vicksburg Healthcare and the language of Cleveland, employers can use such representations to seek summary judgment.
Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.