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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Plaintiff's Divorce Proceeding Statement that He Can't Work May Preclude Disability Discrimination Damages Claim against Employer

On March 19, 2019, the Missouri Supreme Court held that an employee/plaintiff’s inconsistent positions regarding his ability to work in separate judicial proceedings may prevent his claim for damages for disability discrimination. The case illustrates the difficulty even sophisticated parties have in navigating state and federal employment discrimination laws.

Plaintiff, who suffered from muscular dystrophy, was employed as an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) in Missouri’s Division of Workers’ Compensation. Based on his claimed inability to work as an ALJ, plaintiff sought disability benefits from the state retirement system and also sought maintenance in his divorce proceedings from his wife. After learning that plaintiff had received disability benefits for employees who are unable to work, plaintiff’s supervisor ended plaintiff’s employment. Plaintiff sued under the Missouri Human Rights Act alleging disability discrimination and retaliation. At trial, plaintiff argued that he was disabled, but that he could have continued as an ALJ for many years, which was contrary to his previous statements in the divorce case that he was unable to work. The jury awarded plaintiff millions. The trial court’s judgment was affirmed by the appellate court.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded on the issue of whether under the “judicial estoppel” doctrine plaintiff’s previous statements that he was unable to work should have prevented him from claiming at trial that he would have been able to continue working as an ALJ long into the future. The trial court had declined to apply judicial estoppel based on that statement because plaintiff had ultimately been unsuccessful in obtaining maintenance in his divorce from his claimed inability to work. But the Supreme Court held that judicial estoppel was not limited to cases where a benefit was obtained by a party’s claim in court, but is a flexible doctrine to protect the dignity of the courts. The Supreme Court therefore held that plaintiff was judicially estopped from seeking damages in his discrimination case against his employer based on a theory that he could continue to work as an ALJ, when he previously told a different court in his divorce proceeding that he could not work as an ALJ.

The takeaway is that employers should attempt to determine whether employees have taken positions in judicial or other proceedings that may be contrary to the claim that they are making against the employer. If so, the employer may have an estoppel defense to the claim. This case also illustrates that correct analysis of the legal issues when assessing and describing an employee’s limitations and ability to work may avoid problems down the road.

The foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation and should not be relied on as such.  Please contact one of our labor and employment lawyers if you have any questions.  

This update was prepared by Charles S. Elbert and D. Leo Human.

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