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Although the Supreme Court addressed the tension between an ADA claim and a Social Security claim a few years ago in Cleveland v. Policy Management Sys. Corp., issues remain as to how inconsistencies are considered by the courts. The recent case of Mendez v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. highlights the difficulty an employee receiving Social Security benefits can face when seeking relief under the ADA. In Mendez, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania considered whether the plaintiff’s Social Security claim precluded her ADA case. Pilgrim’s Pride hired Wanda Mendez in March 2001 to work in its turkey-packaging department. Later that year, Mendez suffered a work-related back injury. Pilgrim’s Pride gave Mendez light-duty work following her injury. In December 2001, Mendez left the turkey-packaging department and began working in the quality assurance department. From January to July 2002, Mendez met with Pilgrim’s Pride’s doctors several times. After each visit, Mendez received a report advising that she had lifting and bending restrictions. Mendez’s supervisors received copies of the restrictions, and the supervisors modified her tasks to comply with the restrictions. Mendez performed almost all of her tasks, albeit with accommodations. In early August 2002, Mendez was fired for failing to obtain a timely tuna sample for a government inspection. Mendez claimed that she was limited by severe back pain. Mendez applied for Social Security disability benefits after her discharge. In her application for benefits, Mendez made several sworn statements about her inability to work. Mendez stated that she became disabled on Aug. 7, 2002 — the date of her discharge — that she was constantly in pain, that she could not carry 10 or more pounds, and that she could not lift anything. However, Mendez admitted that before she was fired she had been able to perform her job with the accommodations provided by Pilgrim’s Pride. In January 2004, the Social Security Administration found that Mendez was disabled and awarded her $586 per month in benefits. SOCIAL SECURITY, ADA AT ODDS In March 2004, Mendez filed a lawsuit against Pilgrim’s Pride, arguing, among other things, that Pilgrim’s Pride violated the ADA by firing her because of her disability. Pilgrim’s Pride moved for summary judgment at the close of discovery, on the grounds that Mendez could not show that she was capable of performing the essential functions of her job, with or without accommodation. In support of its motion, Pilgrim’s Pride relied on Mendez’s statements in her Social Security application and argued that these statements precluded her lawsuit. Mendez relied on Cleveland v. Policy Management, arguing that the pursuit of a Social Security claim does not always preclude an ADA claim. Mendez contended that her ability to perform the essential functions of her job until her firing was not inconsistent with her total disability for Social Security purposes after her firing. The court considered Cleveland, finding that the Social Security Act’s goal is to provide seriously disabled persons financial support on a timely basis. According to the district court, the fact that an ADA plaintiff could be accommodated raises the possibility that ADA claims and SSDI claims are not necessarily inconsistent. An employee may qualify for Social Security benefits because she cannot engage in gainful activity because of her disability, but she may also succeed under the ADA because with reasonable accommodations, she might be able to work. The court noted that while a plaintiff may pursue both types of claims, cases might arise where the Social Security claim conflicts with the ADA claim, resulting in summary judgment as to the ADA claim. An ADA plaintiff must show that she can perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation, and a plaintiff’s statement in a Social Security application that she is unable to work may negate an essential element of the ADA case, without sufficient explanation. An ADA plaintiff cannot simply ignore a contradiction that arises out of the earlier Social Security claim. To defeat summary judgment, the plaintiff’s explanation must sufficiently allow a reasonable juror to conclude that she could perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation, regardless of the statements in the Social Security application. In Mendez, the plaintiff stated in her Social Security application that she became disabled on Aug. 7, 2002. Mendez claimed that she experienced pain when sitting, standing or walking for more than 10 minutes and, therefore, could not work. The Social Security Administration found these statements credible and awarded Mendez benefits. The district court found that Mendez’s statements conflicted with an essential element of her ADA claim: that she could perform the essential functions of her job, with or without reasonable accommodation. According to the court, an individual filing an ADA claim must show that she can perform the essential functions of the position. Mendez detailed numerous physical limitations in her Social Security application that prevented her from working. She was unable, however, to explain how she could work with her disability or what accommodations would enable her to work with the disability. The district court, therefore, granted Pilgrim’s Pride’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed Mendez’s case. Mendez and Cleveland highlight the difficulty employees will face in pursuing both Social Security and ADA claims. Although a Social Security claim does not necessarily preclude an ADA claim, Mendez and Cleveland demonstrate that a person filing an ADA claim cannot simply ignore the contradiction that will likely arise out of a previously filed Social Security claim. Sid Steinberg is a partner in Post & Schell’s business law and litigation department. He concentrates his national litigation and consulting practice in the field of employment and employee relations law. Steinberg has lectured extensively on all aspects of employment law, including Title VII, the FMLA and the ADA.

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