Seyfarth Synopsis: In an ADA action regarding disability discrimination, the Fifth Circuit reversed a District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer and against the EEOC, noting that even though the charging party indicated she had a temporary total disability on a disability insurance claim form that she submitted the day after her termination, factual issues remained regarding the availability of a reasonable accommodation. The ruling underscores the nature and challenge of EEOC litigation of ADA claims.
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In an ADA disability discrimination action brought by the EEOC on behalf of a nurse against her employer healthcare facility, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi entered summary judgment in favor of the employer after finding that the charging party was not able to perform her job duties in light of the fact that she described herself as “totally disabled” when making a disability insurance claim. Following the Commission’s appeal in EEOC v. Vicksburg Healthcare, L.L.C., No. 15-60764 (5th Cir. Oct. 12, 2016), the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, holding that the employee’s claim to temporary total disability, made the day after she was terminated from her job because of a disability, did not prevent the EEOC from contending that she was able to work if granted a reasonable accommodation.

For employers engaged in EEOC disability discrimination litigation under the ADA, in particular with employees alleging “total disability” on subsequent disability insurance claims, this ruling illustrates that such claims of “total disability” do not foreclose the possibility that a reasonable accommodation could have been provided.

Case Background

As we discussed in previous blog posts about this case here, here, and here, the charging party was a nurse for Vicksburg Healthcare, LLC d/b/a River Region Medical Center (“River Region”). Id. at 1-2. After the nurse tore her rotator cuff and took twelve weeks of FMLA medical leave for shoulder surgery, her physician sent a note to River Region stating that she could return to duty as long as she was limited to “light work” requiring “limited use” of her left arm. Her physician further clarified that she should not lift, pull, or push anything weighing more than ten pounds. After review of these limitations, River Region terminated the nurse because of her injury and concomitant inability to perform at work. Id. at 2.

The nurse applied for temporary disability benefits the next day, indicating on her claims forms that she was temporarily totally disabled. Thereafter, the EEOC filed suit in 2012, alleging that River Region violated the ADA by failing to provide the nurse a reasonable accommodation and by terminating her. After discovery, River Region moved for summary judgment. The District Court granted River Region’s motion for summary judgment, noting that the claims were barred under Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), since the EEOC failed to provide a “sufficient explanation for the contradicting statements” between the nurse’s claim of temporary total disability and the EEOC’s contention that she was “qualified” for purposes of the ADA because she could perform the job with a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC appealed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer. Id. at 3.

The 5th Circuit’s Decision

The Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s grant of summary judgment. The Fifth Circuit initially discussed how according to the District Court, “this case has one key fact: the day after her termination, [the nurse] filed for disability benefits and, in doing so, represented that she was temporarily totally disabled.” Id. Citing Cleveland, the Fifth Circuit explained that an ADA suit claiming that the plaintiff can perform her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove consistent with a disability benefits claim that the plaintiff could not perform her own job (or other jobs) without it. Id. at 4. The Fifth Circuit held that the District Court erred by failing to recognize that the EEOC’s argument that, “nothing in the [disability claim forms] indicate[d] that [the nurse] represented that she was unable to perform the essential functions of her job with or without an accommodation,” was sufficient under Cleveland. Id. at 4-5.

The Fifth Circuit also rejected River Ridge’s contention that it twice offered the nurse a reasonable accommodation in the form of clerical work, but that she ignored or rejected the offers. Id. at 5-6. After the nurse declined the offer on the advice of her doctor, River Ridge argued that the offer had remained open. The Fifth Circuit rejected this assertion, noting that the EEOC had shown that the conduct of the parties around the time of the nurse’s termination was circumstantial evidence that there was no actionable offer for the nurse to accept in regards to a light-duty clerical position. The Fifth Circuit also accepted the EEOC’s argument that the second offer was never made. Id. at 6.

River Region contended that the nurse never requested “light duty” as a reasonable accommodation. Id. The Fifth Circuit held this argument was meritless, noting that the nurse presented doctor’s certifications clearing her to work with a “light work” restriction and instructions indicating “[n]o lifting, no pulling, no pushing anything greater than 10 pounds.” Id. The Fifth Circuit found that a jury could reasonably view the certifications as a request for a “light duty” accommodation. Id.

Finally, River Region contended that “light duty” was inconsistent with the essential functions of the nurse’s duties since lifting or pushing more than ten pounds were essential functions of her job. Id. The Fifth Circuit rejected this argument, noting it was “hard to square with River Region’s claims that it could have and would have accommodated [the nurse] by giving her clerical work during her recovery.” Id. Citing the parties’ contradictory proffered testimony about the essential functions of nursing duties and further noting that written job descriptions do not warrant absolute deference, the Fifth Circuit held that fact issues precluded summary judgment. Id. at 7. Accordingly, the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the District Court’s grant of summary judgment, holding that the employee’s claim to temporary total disability, made the day after she was terminated from her job because of a disability, did not prevent her from contending that she was able to work if granted a reasonable accommodation. Id. at 8.

Implications For Employers

It is not uncommon for a terminated employee to indicate on a disability insurance claim that they are “totally disabled.” Regarding EEOC litigation brought under the ADA, this ruling illustrates that employee claims of “total disability” for insurance purposes do not necessarily mean that employers are automatically unable to provide a reasonable accommodation. As such, employers cannot definitively rely on statements made in disability insurance claims when seeking summary judgment in ADA litigation brought by the EEOC. Employers must continue to exercise caution when approaching any and all requests for reasonable accommodations.

Readers can also find this post on our EEOC Countdown blog here.