Application for Social Security Benefits No Bar to EEOC Suit, Judge Rules

A federal court in Peoria, Ill., decided Tuesday that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission could not be blocked from continuing its lawsuit on behalf of a disabled sales manager employee of Autozone, Inc. because the employee had applied for and obtained Social Security disability benefits.

Autozone, one of the nation’s largest retailers of auto parts and accessories, had been sued by EEOC on June 13, 2007 because, the EEOC charged, the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to reasonably accommodate the manager, who had back and neck impairments, at its Macomb, Ill., retail outlet. The suit is pending before Magistrate Judge John A. Gorman in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division, and is captioned EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., C.D. Ill. No. 07-1154.

The company had sought leave from the court to amend its answer in the case by asserting that based on the employee’s statements to the Social Security Administration, the EEOC is judicially estopped from claiming that [the employee] is capable of performing essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

In an eight-page order issued Tuesday, Judge Gorman rejected Autozone’s application for leave to amend its answer. (EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., C.D. Ill. No. 07-1154, Order, 2/23/2009, Gorman, J.) Citing EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc., 534 U.S.. 279 (2002), In re Bemis Company, 279 F.3d 419 (7th Cir. 2002), and EEOC v. Sidley & Austin LLP, 437 F.3d 695 (7th Cir. 20060, among other precedent-setting cases), the court wrote:

[T]he EEOC’s interest in pursuing perpetuators of discrimination is much broader than simply obtaining relief for the victim of that discrimination. Narrowing that interest by placing on it the same boundaries that limit individual litigants would be ill-advised. * * * The EEOC was not (and could not have been) a litigant in the administrative proceedings before the SSA. It had no control or input into the application process. * * * The EEOC is not a proxy for [the employee]. Its interest in pursuing relief on [the employee’s] behalf is a public interest in eliminating discrimination, and that interest is not as narrow as is [the employee’s] interest. The EEOC is therefore not estopped by [the employee’s] statements and conduct, and I conclude that the affirmative defense of judicial estoppel is futile as a matter of law.

According to the EEOC, the sales manager worked under medical restrictions that prevented him from performing tasks that required rotation of his upper body or heavy lifting. However, the agency’s investigation revealed that starting in 2003, new store management started requiring the sales manager to mop floors and perform other tasks inconsistent with his medical restrictions. These assignments led to further injury, necessitating a medical leave. Once the sales manager had recovered, the EEOC said, Autozone refused to permit him to return to work and instead kept him on an involuntary, unpaid leave and eventually discharged him.

“Over the years, some employers have attempted to defend disability discrimination lawsuits on the basis of a victim’s interactions with the Social Security Administration or on the basis that some individual action or agreement by the victim trumps the EEOC’s statutory authority to act in the public interest,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago. “Today’s decision by the court in this case demonstrates, once again, that those arguments are non-starters.”

The EEOC is also represented by Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour and Trial Attorney Justin Mulaire, both of the Chicago District Office.

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