An Atlantic City casino dealer’s discriminatory-firing claim fell apart in New Jersey federal court due to a determination by Social Security that she was unable to work.
Arline Taliaferro could not assert she was qualified to work after stating “she could not use her right hand and that she stopped working because of her condition,” Chief U.S. District Judge Jerome Simandle said Wednesday.
Taliaferro was dealing at Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in 2008 when the chair she was sitting in collapsed, causing a fracture and other right wrist and hand injuries.
She underwent surgery and took a leave of absence until March 2010, when she returned and asked that her duties be limited to three-card poker and blackjack, rather than games involving tiles, chips or quarters, which were difficult for her to grasp.
Taliaferro was allowed limited duty, but was sometimes sent home or ceded shifts to coworkers, and in early 2011 was determined by a doctor to be unable to continue working as a dealer.
Trump gave her a reassignment notification in March 2011 but was unable to find another suitable position for her within the company. Trump later asked her to resume working as a dealer, but she never returned and was formally terminated that May.
Taliaferro immediately filed suit claiming, under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, that she was able to work but fired because of her disability.
In the months that followed, Taliaferro also collected unemployment benefits, claiming a lack of work, and settled a $148,500 workers’ compensation claim with Trump.
While the LAD suit was pending, Taliaferro filed a claim for disability insurance benefits with the Social Security Administration, contending she could not use her right hand, and was unable to resume her previous work or find a different occupation. She said her disability started in March 2011 when Trump sent her the reassignment notice.
SSA deemed her disabled and began paying benefits in January 2012.
On Wednesday, Simandle, applying federal estoppel law, granted Trump’s motion for summary judgment on the LAD claim.
He said she “cannot simply disavow her prior sworn representations upon which the Government relied in finding” her disabled.
“She benefitted from her statements, the SSA relied on them, and she is estopped from taking a contrary position now,” the judge wrote in Taliaferro v. Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc.
LAD plaintiffs must demonstrate, as an element of the claim, that they were qualified to perform the essential functions of their employment.
Taliaferro didn’t represent to SSA that she was able to deal certain card games—which presents “a genuine conflict with her claim in this case that she was wrongfully terminated,” Simandle said.
The judge waved off her contentions that the physical limitations leading to the disability determination were unrelated to and apart from her ability to perform the requirements of her Trump job when she was fired.
Taliaferro also was unable to reconcile the inconsistency between her SSA claim and her LAD claim, the judge said.
Taliaferro “adduces no evidence that [her] hand or wrist condition deteriorated” between March 2011, when she purportedly was able to work, and that December, when she filed the SSA application, Simandle said.
He added that the disability determination had nothing to do with her use of strong prescription pain killers, as she argued.
In addition to the LAD claim, Simandle also struck her second claim, filed under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act.
“It’s not a particularly new concept,” says Taliaferro’s lawyer, Haddonfield solo William Hildebrand. “There’s a lot of case law out there saying, if you file for [SSA disability] benefits, you’re taking a risk.”
“It behooves someone litigating in this area to make sure the client doesn’t apply for any kind of benefits without consulting with you first,” he adds.
John Donnelly, one of Trump’s lawyers, says they alerted the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development that Taliaferro had multiple claims for relief pending.
“The difficulty with these kinds of cases is, none of the competing bureaucracies communicate with one another,” he says. “This becomes very expensive for employers who are trying to sort out the issues.”
Donnelly handled the matter as of counsel with Levin, Staller, Sklar, Chan & Donnelly in Atlantic City but has since left to form Donnelly Clark, also in Atlantic City.