In 1999, in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court held that in order to avoid summary judgment in a disability discrimination case brought under the ADA, a plaintiff must provide a "sufficient" explanation regarding any conflicting statements made in a Social Security disability application. According to the Supreme Court, that explanation must be "sufficient to warrant a reasonable juror’s concluding that, assuming the truth of, or the plaintiff’s good-faith belief in, the earlier statement, the plaintiff could nonetheless ‘perform the essential functions’ of her job, with or without ‘reasonable accommodation.’"
Last week, in EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Medical Center, Inc., the Fourth Circuit federal appeals court rejected the EEOC’s position that Cleveland does not apply in enforcement actions brought by the EEOC on behalf of an individual claimant. While acknowledging that the EEOC has a governmental interest in an enforcement action that is not merely derivative of the individual claimant’s interest, the court concluded that "this does not mean that a claimant’s statements to other government agencies are somehow less relevant to an enforcement action on behalf of the claimant than they are for an action pursued by the claimant himself."
In concluding that the EEOC and the claimant in GBMC did not meet this burden, the Court noted multiple comments from the claimant indicating his total inability to work and his failure to notify the Social Security Administration of his agreement to notify it if his condition improved to the point where he would be able to return to work. While noting that it "did not condone" and was "deeply concerned" about the employer’s failure to reinstate the individual claimant when the medical evidence demonstrated he was capable of working, the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment stating that it was constrained to do so based on the plain language of the ADA and relevant case law.
GBMC found that reliance on the Cleveland decision was a great litigation strategy to avoid potential ADA liability, but there may be another lesson for employers to take from the GBMC case prior to litigation. When an employee is seeking reinstatement from a lengthy leave of absence, employers should make sure they know whether the employee has applied for benefits that may be inconsistent with the request to return to work. Doing so will help inform any reasonable accommodation process and will help employers ensure that they do not return employees to work who may not be able to work safely.