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Overview: In 2010, plaintiff applied and interviewed for a service representative position with the Social Security Administration (SSA), and claimed she received an offer of employment at the end of her interview. The plaintiff then disclosed her physical and mental disabilities which she claims prompted the SSA to rescind its offer of employment. The SSA denied offering the plaintiff employment, stating it never extends offers of employment during interviews. The SSA deemed the plaintiff not motivated for public service due to her answers in the interview. It also preferred two applicants over the plaintiff, one who had accepted another position and one with a disability who accepted the position.

The plaintiff filed an employment discrimination charge claiming discrimination based on race and her mental and physical disabilities. Plaintiff subsequently filed a discrimination claim in the district court. However, prior to trial, she dismissed her race and mental disability discrimination claims. At trial, the jury found that the plaintiff had a disability, the company regarded her as having a disability, and that they failed to hire her. However, the jury also found that even without her physical disability, the plaintiff would not have been hired.

Plaintiff appealed claiming the verdict was against the manifest weight of the evidence.  Plaintiff also appealed the denial of two in limine motions. Plaintiff first objected to the admittance of her job application to the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) in 2015.  In that application, plaintiff denied having a disability or any other physical limitations. She also underwent a physical examination and the physician’s assistant concluded she had no limiting conditions. Plaintiff claimed she failed to list her disability for fear of discrimination and that failing to list a disability in 2015 is irrelevant to whether she had a disability in 2010 when she applied with the SSA. Next, plaintiff claimed the trial court improperly admitted irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in that the SSA ultimately hired an applicant with a disability.

Outcome: The 7th Circuit found that the trial court did not commit any reversible error and affirmed the verdict and judgment in favor of the SSA.  The court ruled that the trial court properly allowed into evidence the VHA application and the medical professional’s opinion that plaintiff had no physical limitations.  Secondly, the court held that plaintiff failed to show how admitting evidence of the hired applicant’s disability status prejudiced her substantial rights.

Plaintiff first objected to the admittance of her job application to the Veterans Health Administration in 2015. In that application, she denied having a disability or any physical limitations; plaintiff then underwent a physical examination and the physician’s assistant concluded she had no limiting conditions. However, the plaintiff stated her permanent physical disability worsened between 2010 and 2015. Plaintiff further claimed she failed to list her disability for fear of discrimination her disability finding in 2015 was irrelevant to whether she had a disability in 2010. The SSA disagreed, claiming that the subsequent contradictory medical records should be explained through testimony and are relevant to an adverse employment discrimination claim. The district court found the plaintiff’s subsequent statements regarding her medical condition relevant as to whether she was disabled at the time of the claimed discrimination. The district court properly followed the relevance analysis, finding that subsequent medical evidence is relevant regarding the question “of a claimant’s condition during that period. Both the application and the medical professional’s opinion that the plaintiff had no physical limitations bear on whether the plaintiff was disabled five years earlier. The district court properly allowed the evidence.

Finally, the plaintiff claimed the district court improperly admitted “irrelevant and prejudicial” evidence that the SSA hired an applicant with a disability. The plaintiff proffered that the Supreme Court noted ‘the fact that one person in the protected class has lost out to another person in the protected class is …irrelevant’” but plaintiff conveniently omitted the remainder of the sentence “so long as he has lost out because of his age.  Here, the plaintiff’s claim of irrelevancy worked so long as she lost out because of her disability and no other probable reason. The plaintiff’s claim rested on discriminatory intent based on disability and the SSA was entitled to present relevant evidence to rebut this claim.

While the hired applicant’s disability status was not conclusive or outcome determinative, it bore on the weight of the evidence and was satisfied by the broad relevancy standard. The plaintiff claimed that the hired applicant’s disability status prejudiced the outcome of the trial, yet she failed to show how this evidence prejudiced her substantial rights.  Upon review of the record, ample evidence supported the jury verdict that the SSA’s hiring decision contained no discriminatory motive. The hired applicant, with a bachelor’s degree from Northwestern with academic honors and community service efforts with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, was objectively more qualified than the plaintiff. The hired applicant’s interview answers clearly articulated her motivation and desire to work for SSA while the plaintiff answered that she simply sought job stability and eventual retirement.

This opinion can be helpful in the defense of ADA cases where subsequent contrary medical evaluations exist and where the employer ultimately hires an employee from the plaintiff’s protected class.

To view the complete ruling, click here.