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Jones v. South-Central Employment Corp.

May 23, 2007

GERTHA R. JONES, PLAINTIFF
v.
SOUTH-CENTRAL EMPLOYMENT CORPORATION, D/B/A SOUTH CENTRAL WORKFORCE: ADMINISTRATION AND SOUTH-CENTRAL WORKFORCE INVESTMENT BOARD, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

In this action Plaintiff Gertha Jones has alleged that Defendants' termination of her employment and subsequent failure to hire her for two different positions constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of Plaintiff's race, age, and disability, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634 ("ADEA"), and the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. ("ADA"). Now pending before the Court is Defendants' joint motion for summary judgment. (Doc. No. 29.) For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted because Plaintiff is estopped from establishing a prima facie element of each of her claims, namely, that she was qualified for any of the jobs in question.

I. BACKGROUND*fn1

From 1999 until December 31, 2001, Plaintiff was employed by York County as an assistant director of monitoring in the area of employment and training services. On November 1, 2001, Plaintiff was provided official notice that York County would cease to provide employment and training services and that she and a number of other employees would be laid off from work. Plaintiff acknowledged the notice, and the fact that she would be permanently laid off from York County, as of December 31, 2001. On or about November 8, 2001, Plaintiff suffered a significant back injury. Following her injury, Plaintiff took time off from work, although she continued to attend certain meetings in connection with her employment, at times using a cane to assist her. Defendants, or their employees, including Plaintiff's supervisor, were aware that Plaintiff attended such meetings and that she used a cane. On December 17, 2001, Plaintiff applied for two positions with the South Central Workforce Investment Board, one for the position of Quality Assurance Coordinator and the other for the position of Quality Assurance Monitor. Plaintiff was advised on January 24, 2002, and on February 13, 2002, respectively, that she would not be hired for either position.

On May 28, 2002, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in which she averred that she "ha[s] difficulty walking, standing and sitting. It affects my shoulders and arms." (Doc. No. 30, Defendants' Statement of Material Facts, ¶ 30.)

In July 2002, Plaintiff completed an ADA Intake Questionnaire in which she represented that she suffered from various injuries and conditions affecting her back. (Doc. No. 34, Plaintiff's Counterstatement of Material Facts, Ex. 2.) In the questionnaire, Plaintiff stated that she was "off from work" starting November 20, 2001, and was employing use of a cane. (Id.) Plaintiff also stated that on November 20, 2001, she contacted her supervisor to advise him of her injury and that she did not know how long she would need to remain off from work; nevertheless, during this time she attended four work-related meetings that took place in Harrisburg. (Id.) In the questionnaire, Plaintiff represented that she "could perform the duties [of her then-current job] without special accommodation[.]" (Id.) In response to a question asking whether she had ever requested a "reasonable accommodation because of [her] disability," Plaintiff answered: "None." (Id.) At another point in the questionnaire, Plaintiff represented that she "did and still ha[s] a back problem. However[, she] could manage the duties of both positions without special accommodations." (Id.)

On February 10, 2003, Plaintiff submitted an Application for Disability Insurance Benefits to the Social Security Administration ("SSA").*fn2 In her application, Plaintiff stated: "[I] became unable to work because of my disabling condition on November 9, 2001. I am still disabled." (Doc. No. 30, Def. Statement of Material Facts, ¶ 7.) In a questionnaire submitted in support of her application, Plaintiff represented that her disability and attendant pain had significantly limited her mobility and ability to perform general tasks. For example, Plaintiff stated: that she required assistance entering and exiting a bathtub, dressing, and combing her hair; that she seldom drove a car due to problems with her right leg and that she relied upon family members to provide her with transportation; that she could not lift or carry more than two or three pounds; that she had difficulty holding a pen or pencil and that she had difficulty writing checks; that she could not sit, stand, or walk for more than ten to fifteen minutes without needing to rest or change position; that she either could not or had difficulty walking, bending, and lifting; that she can climb between zero and two flights of stairs; and that her pain requires her to take medicine that causes her to sleep during the day. (Doc. No. 32, Ex. 3, SSA Questionnaire.)

In a Social Security Administration Disability Report that Plaintiff completed in connection with her application, she represented that her illnesses, injuries, or conditions first started bothering her on November 8, 2001, and that she discontinued working on November 9, 2001. (Doc. No. 32, Ex. 4, SSA Disability Report.) When asked in this document to indicate why she stopped working, Plaintiff responded, "back problems, could not walk, stand or sit for long periods of time legs hurt, back hurt. I retired on 12/2001 because I could no longer do the work." (Id.) In a Social Security Administration Retirement, Survivors and Disability Insurance Notice of Award dated April 18, 2003, the SSA notified Plaintiff that she had been found eligible to receive monthly disability benefits beginning in May 2002, and that she had been found to be disabled under the SSA's rules as of November 9, 2001. (Doc. No. 32, Ex. 8.) Plaintiff has continuously received monthly disability payments since May 2002. (Doc. No. 30, Def. Statement of Material Facts, ¶ 24.)

Plaintiff commenced the instant case by filing a complaint on July 28, 2005, alleging that Defendants' termination of her employment and failure to hire her for two positions to which she applied constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of race, age, and disability, in violation of Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The court shall render summary judgment "if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). An issue is "genuine" only if there is a sufficient evidentiary basis on which a reasonable jury could find for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986). A factual dispute is "material" only if it might affect the outcome of the suit under governing law. Id. at 248. All inferences must be drawn, and all doubts resolved, in favor of the non-moving party. United States v. Diebold, Inc., 369 U.S. 654, 655 (1962); Gans v. Mundy, 762 F.2d 338, 341 (3d Cir. 1985).

On motion for summary judgment, the moving party bears the initial burden of identifying those portions of the record that it believes demonstrate the absence of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). To defeat summary judgment, the non-moving party must respond with facts of record that contradict the facts identified by the movant and may not rest on mere denials. Id. at 321 n.3 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e)); see First Nat'l Bank of Pennsylvania v. Lincoln Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 824 F.2d 277, 282 (3d Cir. 1987). The non-moving party must demonstrate the existence of evidence that would support a jury finding in its favor. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248-49.

In discrimination cases, proof at summary judgment follows a well-established "burden-shifting" approach first set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).*fn3

To establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish that she: (1) has a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) is otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without reasonable accommodations by the employer; and (3) was subject to some adverse action as a result of her disability. Buskirk v. Apollo Metals, 307 F.3d 160, 166 (3d Cir. 2002). Once a plaintiff has established a prima facie case of discrimination, the defendant must rebut an inference of wrongdoing with evidence of a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the action taken. See Weston v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 251 F.3d 420, 432 (3d Cir. 2001). If a defendant successfully meets its burden in a discrimination case, then in order to avoid summary judgment, the plaintiff must present evidence of pretext, or cover-up, or show that discrimination played a role in the employer's decision-making and had a determinative effect on the outcome. See Weston, 251 F.3d at 432; Fuentes v. Perskie, 32 F.3d 759, 764 (3d Cir. 1994).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendants move for summary judgment on Plaintiff's claims that her involuntary termination by non-defendant York County and Defendants' subsequent failure to hire her for two positions constituted unlawful discrimination on the basis of Plaintiff's race, disability, and age, in violation of Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA. As their initial and primary argument in favor of summary judgment, Defendants assert that settled principles of judicial estoppel preclude Plaintiff from satisfying an essential element of a prima facie case of discrimination under any of the foregoing statutes, namely, that she was "qualified" for the employment positions in question. Specifically, Defendants contend that because Plaintiff previously represented to the Social Security Administration ("SSA") that she was totally and permanently disabled and therefore unable to perform her job duties due to a back injury suffered in November 2001, and because the SSA accepted those representations as true and awarded Plaintiff Supplemental Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI") benefits as a result, she should be estopped from now claiming that she was, in fact, qualified to perform the essential functions of the jobs in question, with or without reasonable accommodations.

Judicial estoppel is a judge-made doctrine that "seeks to prevent a litigant from asserting a position inconsistent with one that she has previously asserted in the same or in a previous proceeding." Ryan Operations G. P. v. Santiam-Midwest Lumber Co., 81 F.3d 355, 358 (3d Cir. 1995). In general, the doctrine is designed to prevent litigants from "playing fast and loose with the courts." Id. (quoting Scarano v. Central R. Co. of New Jersey, 203 F.2d 510, 513 (3d Cir. 1953)). "The basic principle . . . is that absent any good explanation, a party should not be allowed to gain an advantage in litigation on one theory, and then seek an inconsistent advantage by pursuing an incompatible theory." 18 Charles A. Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Edward H. Cooper, Federal Practice & Procedure § 4477 (1981).

These types of inconsistencies have the potential to arise in litigation implicating the ADA where a plaintiff previously applied for and was granted SSDI-type benefits. A person "under a disability" is entitled to SSDI benefits if "his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy." 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A). The ADA, in turn, prohibits employers from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability," which is defined as "an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires." 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). As one district court has explained, "The potential for inconsistency arises where . . . a plaintiff applies for and receives SSDI benefits under the theory that she is totally disabled ...


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