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Employee Must Resolve “Disabled” Conflict Under SSDI and ADA

Mayra Pena was fired from her assembler job at Honeywell for job abandonment after she had been absent from work longer than three months. She applied for Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) shortly after her firing, claiming that she had been disabled since the last day she had been at work for Honeywell. Pena also filed a lawsuit against Honeywell claiming that the company failed to accommodate her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In the month before her last day at work, Pena first complained about working in a particular department, claiming it was harmful to her “emotionally.” The company asked for a letter from her physician supporting her request. The doctor’s note asserted an exacerbation of “her anxiety symptoms which are interfering with her ability to function.” These issues were attributed by Pena to her assignment to this particular department. No medical diagnosis was set forth in the letter. Finding the letter inadequate to support her request, Honeywell management advised her that she had to work where assigned or she would have to go home. She left and never returned. SSDI was granted to Pena based on her having “Somatoform disorder” and she was declared totally disabled.
Honeywell sought to dismiss her ADA claim on summary judgment, arguing that because she was disabled under SSDI, she could not perform the essential functions of her position as required to be protected by the ADA. The First Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the case. Federal precedent holds that an SSDI finding of disability does not completely preclude an employee from establishing that she can perform the essential functions of her position with accommodation. SSDI does not account for accommodation in making a disability finding. However, the First Circuit determined that the employee bears the primary burden to account for arguing that she is completely disabled before one arbiter and asserting that she can perform the essential functions of her position before the court. An employee must establish affirmatively, with a real explanation, that with accommodation she can perform the essential functions of her position. In this matter, Pena failed to provide any reasonable explanation for her different positions, claiming only that she was disabled.