In December 2005, Michael Turner submitted a disability report to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) stating that his multiple conditions—necrotizing fasciitis, stroke, and diabetes—made him unable to work. After being hospitalized for some of these conditions, in January 2006, Turner notified his former employer, Greater Baltimore Medical Center (“GBMC”), that he intended to return to work. He submitted a form completed by his doctor that indicated that he could return to work as a part-time secretary as early as March 6, 2006. Turner’s work release was subject to certain restrictions including walking, bending, and lifting.
In April 2006, GBMC told Turner that because he could not return to work with the same job classification and hours he had worked before, GBMC was not obligated to provide him with a position. However, on May 15, 2006, Turner’s doctor provided documentation that there “no reason ... that would prevent [Mr. Turner] from working a full 40 hour week (5–8 hour shifts per week), with no restrictions.”
GBMC terminated Turner in June 2006.
Since being terminated, Turner volunteered over 1,100 hours to GBMC and has applied to approximately twenty-eight positions at GBMC, ten of which he was qualified for. GBMC has never rehired Mr. Turner, and Mr. Turner never informed the SSA about his improved medical condition. In January 2007, Turner submitted a questionnaire to the EEOC, which indicated that his disability would not affect his ability to work and that he never requested a reasonable accommodation from GBMC because he did not need one.
Due to GBMC’s refusal to rehire him, in February 2007, Turner filed a charge against GBMC with the EEOC, and the EEOC found reasonable cause to believe that GBMC had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Accordingly, the EEOC sued GMBC under the ADA alleging that GBMC had discriminated against Turner. The District Court found in favor of GMBC, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland, holding that the“EEOC had not offered a satisfactory explanation for Turner’s claim under the ADA and his application for Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits. Mr. Turner appealed the District Court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of GBMC to the Fourth Circuit.
The Fourth Circuit relied heavily on the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999). In Cleveland, the Supreme Court found that a court must determine whether the ADA plaintiff has offered a “sufficient” explanation of the conflict between their claim for SSDI application for benefits and their ADA claim. With respect to Cleveland, the Fourth Circuit noted that its previous decisions tended to focus carefully on the factual record in order to determine whether the ADA plaintiff has offered a satisfactory explanation for the apparent contradiction between their disability benefits application and claim under the ADA.
The Court found, on the one hand, Turner’s SSDI application communicated that he was and would be totally disabled. Yet, on the other hand, Turner reported in his ADA claim that he could return to work. These conflicting accounts, thus, present a contradiction because Turner’s SSDI application indicated he was unable to work, whereas his ADA claim indicated that he was able to work. But what seemed most troubling to the Court was that Turner continued to receive SSDI benefits, but he never notified the SSA about a change in his condition.
In attempting to arrive at an answer to this apparent contradiction, the Court determined that the “central question was whether Mr. Turner could have reasonably believed that his improved physical condition would not trigger his obligation to notify SSA about the change in his condition.”
The Court held that the factual record must contain evidence supporting any apparent contradiction or inconsistency in one’s SSDI benefits application and ADA claim. The Court found that Turner’s SSDI application indicated total or near-total disability, whereas Turner’s ADA claim indicated an ability to work without a reasonable accommodation. Given this factual background, the Court held that any change in Turner's condition allowing him to work with or without reasonable accommodation would have been material, and should have been included in the factual record with SSA to support Turner’s two inconsistent statements.
Going forward, this case is significant because it informs ADA plaintiffs in the Fourth Circuit of their responsibility to report any changes in their disabling condition to the SSA, especially if it alters their ability to work. If a plaintiff fails to fulfill this duty, then a Court may find that any apparent contradictions between their SSDI application and ADA claim are not adequately explained in the “factual record.” One way to ensure that such a contradiction is adequately accounted for in the “factual record” is to inform SSA of any doctor appointments, work releases or any other documentation and/or situation that indicates a change in the potential plaintiff’s condition or ability to work. Taking these types of precautionary measures will help to ensure that there is sufficient evidence, which a Court may rely upon, to resolve any apparent contradiction between a plaintiff’s disability status on a SSDI application and any future or pending ADA claims.