Doctrine of Estoppel applied in ADA litigation
DeVito v Chicago Park District, CA7, 270. F.3d 532
Nicholas DeVito charged that his employer, the Chicago Park District, violated the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability. His claim was dismissed after a bench trial. The district court judge found that the DeVito was physically incapable of working full time, even with an accommodation, and therefore was not within the Act's protections. The Circuit Court agreed and dismissed DeVito's appeal.
DeVito worked as a laborer for the park district until he injured his back in 1979. Although his injury prevented his returning to his laborer's job, he was assigned to a “light duty” job -- answering the telephone at a park district office near his home.*
Four years later, the park district fired DeVito after it videotaped him twisting, bending, and climbing in and out of trucks.
Starting with the observation that the employment provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act provide relief only to persons who are capable, with or without an accommodation that would make it possible for them to work despite a disability, to perform the essential functions of their job, which in the case of a full-time job requires that they be capable of working full time.**
In addition, said the court, there is a more fundamental objection to DeVito's claim. The doctrine of estoppel prevents a litigant from repudiating a representation that has reasonably, foreseeable induced reliance by the person to whom he made it. “Even if the representation was false (indeed that is the usual case in which the doctrine is applied), the maker of it is estopped (forbidden) to deny it and by denying it pull the rug out from under the unsuspecting person to whom he had made it.”
The doctrine has been applied in ADA cases much like this one -- cases in which an employee attempts to whipsaw his employer by first obtaining benefits or concessions upon a representation of total disability to work full time and then seeking damages for the employer's failure to accommodate the disability, which the employee now seeks to prove was not total after all.
In the words of the court, “an ADA plaintiff may be estopped by an inconsistent representation made to his employer to obtain benefits.” However, the Circuit Court observed that “since different statutes define total disability differently, the employee will sometimes be able to explain away the apparent inconsistency of his positions.
Here the court rejected DeVito's efforts to “explain away” any inconsistencies in his position. It said that the park district was entitled to rely on DeVito's implicit representation -- implicit in his behavior in his light-duty job answering the phone -- that “he could work no more than two or three hours a day and on his explicit representation that his condition had not improved since the original injury.”
* DeVito was allowed to leave work whenever he felt pain or stress and admitted that he would typically leave work after only two or three hours, though he was being paid the full wages of a laborer who works eight hours a day.
** The fact that DeVito had not worked full time for 13 years at the time of the appeal hearing -- the ostensible reason being his disability, and his statement at that hearing that he currently felt no better than he had felt when he was first injured -- was enough evidence to enable the district judge to find that DeVito was incapable of working full time.