February 1999

Workplace Labor Update - Disabled Once and for All – February 1999

3 min

May an employee successfully assert in one proceeding that she is disabled, and then in another claim that she is able and competent to work? This question was recently answered with a resounding, “No,” by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the tribunal with federal appellate jurisdiction in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. King v. Herbert J. Thomas Mem. Hosp., 159 F.3d 192 (4th Cir. 1998).

For twenty-five years, Kermie King worked as a dietary aide for the Thomas Memorial Hospital. In September 1987, she was fired at age 58 because she admitted to repeatedly falsifying her time card. After her discharge, King applied for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration based upon osteoarthritis, a condition for which she had unsuccessfully sought the accommodation of a reduced amount of time standing on her feet during the year before her discharge. SSA awarded her retroactive disability benefits, determining that she had been disabled since one week before her discharge.

King then sued her former employer for age discrimination under West Virginia law, which requires the claimant to demonstrate that she “is able and competent to perform the services required” of her employment. Observing that the SSA disability benefits notice stated that King's award was based upon information and medical documentation that she provided, the lower court found King's age discrimination suit was factually incompatible with the position she took before SSA. The lower court held that King could not take the position before SSA that she was disabled and then take the inconsistent position in her age discrimination claim that she was able and competent.

On appeal, King contended that the SSA disability finding did not reflect her inability to perform her job as a dietary aide, but rather her general unemployability due to her age, limited work skills, education, and incapability due to arthritic feet and legs. Rejecting this argument the Fourth Circuit held that while the factors of age, skills, and education related only to King's general employability, the factor of “incapacity” referred to her ability “to do [her] previous work.”

The Court further found that “judicial estoppel,” an equitable doctrine that prevents a party who has successfully taken a position in one proceeding from taking the opposite position in a subsequent proceeding, barred King from asserting that she was able and competent. “To allow King to obtain benefits from two sources based on two incompatible positions, simply because the positions aid her claims for renumeration, would reduce the truth to a mere financial convenience and would undermine the integrity of the judicial process,” held the Fourth Circuit.

A number of other courts have similarly considered whether individuals who have applied for or have received SSA disability benefits are barred from claiming that they are qualified individuals with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, the federal Courts of Appeal are in disagreement on this issue. In order to resolve this disagreement, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether individuals who claim they are disabled for purposes of receiving SSA disability benefits may later claim that they are qualified individuals with disabilities for purposes of the ADA. Stay tuned to future editions of the Workplace Labor Update for further developments.