About Us  |  About Cheetah®  |  Contact Us

$780K jury verdict for unaccommodated employee upheld despite SSDI receipt

By Brandi O. Brown, J.D.

A former county employee who was awarded over $780,000 in compensatory and economic damages, based on allegations that her employer failed to accommodate her disability and forced her to leave her job, remains entitled to that award, a federal district court in Maryland ruled. In particular, the court ruled that her receipt of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits did not necessarily bar her from bringing her claim—the employee explained sufficiently that she would have been able to work with a reasonable accommodation (something for which SSDI does not account) and that her health deteriorated to the point of being unable to work when the employer withdrew that accommodation. The defendant’s motion for judgment as a matter of law or, in the alternative, a motion for a new trial was denied (Van Rossum v. Baltimore County, Maryland, September 11, 2017, Hazel, G.).

Jury trial and verdict. In late January of 2017 a jury in Maryland heard the claims of a community health inspector in Baltimore County, who alleged that her former employer violated the provisions of the ADA. As detailed in an April 2016 decision denying summary judgment, the employee started experiencing a variety of symptoms in May 2009, including severe pain, reduced vision, numbness, and “brain fog,” all of which she attributed to the presence of mold and fungus in the courthouse where her office was located. Though her department moved to a new building down the road, her symptoms worsened, allegedly due to environmental triggers, including poor ventilation. The employer refused her request to change offices and, after she exhausted her FMLA leave, the employee allegedly felt forced to retire early, thereby forfeiting certain pension and related benefits she would have received had she remained employed through July 2010.

At trial, the employee presented evidence that the employer failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation, discriminated against her based on her disability, and then retaliated against her for seeking accommodations. The jury awarded her $250,000 in compensatory damages and just over $530,000 in economic damages. The employer renewed a motion for judgment as a matter of law or alternatively for a new trial.

No contradiction from SSDI application. The employer’s primary argument was that the employee was not a qualified individual because she had applied for SSDI benefits, thus indicating that she was too disabled to work. However, the court explained, there is clear guidance for this scenario in the Supreme Court’s decision in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp. Under that decision, receipt of such benefits does not necessarily conflict with an ADA claim and it is possible for an employee to provide a sufficient explanation for any apparent contradiction.

Here, the employee explained to the jury, to its apparent satisfaction, that she was unable to work as of her last day of work, when she was forced to return to the place where she was unable to work (and, thus, denied accommodation). She provided evidence that she could perform the essential functions of her job when accommodated and that her health deteriorated when that accommodation was retracted. For the same reason, the court also rejected the employer’s argument that two exhibits related to the Social Security Administration’s disability determinations should not have been excluded.

In addition, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the jury instruction regarding the SSDI benefits—which stated that the jury could consider the employee’s statements in her SSDI filing, but was not required to infer that she was not a qualified individual based on those statements—was inadequate.

Evidence showed adverse employment actions. As to the counts of discrimination and retaliation, the court rejected the employer’s claim that the employee offered no evidence supporting her constructive discharge and non-promotion allegations. She provided testimony that she was reassigned and that her reassignment caused her to forego potential promotion. She also testified that the employer threatened to fire her if she did not return to the workspace in which she was unable to work because of her disability. “Collectively,” the court explained, the testimony provided the jury with a sufficient evidentiary basis to determine that the employee was subjected to adverse actions.

Damages supported. Finally, the court rejected the employer’s argument that the employee failed to present evidence of attempts to mitigate her damages by seeking comparable employment. Although she testified that she had been too sick to look for work immediately after retirement, she also testified that she maintained her accreditation after retirement and was unable to find comparable employment. The award of compensatory damages, moreover, was adequately supported by her testimony at trial regarding depression. She did not have to “incur clinical treatment” for it. Furthermore, there was nothing to indicate that the amount of the award “shocks the conscience.”