EEOC Can Pursue Suit Though Employee Obtained Social Security Disability

February 24, 2009 ( - The U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois has refused to block a disability lawsuit brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a disabled employee even though the employee applied for and received social security disability benefits.

According to an EEOC press release, Autozone, Inc. claimed the EEOC is judicially estopped from claiming that the employee is capable of performing essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation based on statements the employee made to the Social Security Administration when applying for benefits. The EEOC charged that the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to reasonably accommodate the manager, who had back and neck impairments.

The court said: “[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 court added that: “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,” according to the press release.

The EEOC said the sales manager worked under medical restrictions that prevented him from performing tasks that required rotation of his upper body or heavy lifting, but starting in 2003, new store management started requiring the sales manager to mop floors and perform other tasks inconsistent with his medical restrictions. The additional assignments led to further injury, necessitating a medical leave.

Once the sales manager had recovered, the EEOC claimed, Autozone refused to permit him to return to work and instead kept him on an involuntary, unpaid leave and eventually discharged him.

The case is EEOC v. Autozone, Inc., C.D. Ill. No. 07-1154.