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Detz v. Greiner Industries

October 07, 2003

RALPH B. DETZ, APPELLANT
v.
GREINER INDUSTRIES, INC.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil No. 01-cv-05096) District Judge: Honorable Franklin S. VanAntwerpen

Before: Scirica, Chief Judge, Rendell and Ambro, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rendell, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued July 29, 2003

OPINION OF THE COURT

Ralph Detz lost his job with Greiner Industries on November 26, 1997. Detz subsequently convinced the Social Security Administration ("SSA") that, as of the date of his termination by Greiner, he was "disabled" and "unable to work." Detz was awarded Social Security Disability Insurance ("SSDI"), and he continues to collect those benefits. In 2001 Detz brought an action against Greiner alleging wrongful termination in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"). To establish a prima facie case under the ADEA and the PHRA, Detz asserts that, at the time of his termination, he was qualified for the position he held at Greiner and was capable of continuing to perform it.

The District Court found that Detz was judicially estopped from proceeding on his claim of age discrimination, due to his earlier statements to the SSA regarding his disability and inability to work, and granted summary judgment in favor of Greiner on all claims. The issue before us is whether Detz's statements regarding his disability for SSDI purposes should preclude his subsequent claim that, for the purposes of the ADEA and the PHRA, he was "qualified" for his position at Greiner and can thus pursue a wrongful termination action under the ADEA and PHRA. We hold that his failure to adequately reconcile the two contrary positions is fatal to his prima facie showing of age discrimination, and we will, therefore, affirm.

I.

Greiner Industries, Inc., is a mechanical contractor and manufacturer located in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. As such, Greiner's work force engages in a variety of constructionrelated services throughout Lancaster County, including welding, duct work, structural steel fabrication, and sand blasting. Due to the cyclical nature of work in the construction industry, Greiner periodically suffers downturns in its business and, in response, occasionally reduces the size of its work force.

Ralph Detz was employed by Greiner Industries on three separate occasions beginning in 1979. Each of these periods of employment ended when Detz was let go due to downturns in Greiner's business. His last and most lengthy period of employment at Greiner began in 1989 and ended with his layoff on November 26, 1997. Detz usually was employed as a millwright on Greiner's road crew. In this capacity, his duties included installing, servicing, and repairing machinery; welding steel for duct work; installing duct work and insulation; and setting up rigging to move construction equipment. According to Detz, this position involved the use of machines and tools, the application of technical knowledge, significant amounts of walking, and frequent lifting and carrying of objects weighing over fifty pounds. In addition, he was often required to work overtime.

On December 5, 1994, Detz injured his left hand and arm. Despite several attempts to repair the damage through surgery, he continues to suffer from permanent nerve damage and weakness in his injured hand and arm. This injury rendered Detz unable to perform his duties as a millwright, as they involved heavy lifting and manipulating equipment using both hands. According to Detz, his injury is permanent, and it is neither improving nor worsening.

When employees are recovering from injuries, Greiner typically assigns them to its Tool Room for "light duty work," which includes processing shipments and delivering materials to other workers. Employees remain in the Tool Room until they are able to return to their regular positions. Pursuant to this practice, Detz was placed in the Tool Room when he sought to return to work in April of 1995. He remained there, taking time off for surgeries on at least two occasions, until October of 1997, when he began to complain of harassment by the Tool Room supervisor. Detz also asserted that Greiner was failing to follow the medical restrictions placed on Detz in the wake of his injury. Although an internal investigation found that the claims were unsubstantiated, Detz was moved to work in a temporary office trailer, where his duties involved copying and making deliveries.

Greiner eliminated a total of sixty-one positions between April and December of 1997 as a result of a downturn in business, through layoffs, retirements, and terminations for cause. Detz was laid off on November 26, 1997.

On April 25, 1998, Detz filed a Disability Report and an Application for Disability Insurance Benefits ("Application") with the SSA. The Disability Report contained information about his condition, his medical history, his usual activities, and the work he had been doing. On this report, Detz described his "disabling condition" as "loss of use of left hand and arm; high blood pressure; lung problems, depression." He indicated that he stopped working due to his condition on the date of his layoff. In response to a question asking the applicant to "[e]xplain how [his] condition now keeps [him] from working," Detz stated the following: "I can't lift over 20 lbs. Can't use left repetatively [sic]. I drop things easily with left hand."

Later in the Disability Report, in describing the work he had previously done, he listed both his position as a millwright and his job in the Tool Room. However, when responding to subsequent questions asking the applicant to further describe the duties of his previous work, Detz referred exclusively to his position as a millwright. For instance, he described his basic duties this way: "I welded steel for duct work and building construction. I set up rigging to move equipment." He went on to indicate that he spent eight hours a day walking, that he sometimes worked between ten and fourteen hours a day, that he carried rigging and duct work up to twenty-five feet, and that he frequently lifted more than fifty pounds. He did not describe his duties in the Tool Room or in the temporary office trailer anywhere in the report.

His accompanying Application for SSDI indicated that he "became unable to work because of [his] disabling condition" on the date of his termination, and that he was "still disabled" at the time of his Application. The Application, signed by Detz, contains the following acknowledgment:

I know that anyone who makes or causes to be made a false statement or representation of material fact in an application or for use in determining a right to payment under the Social Security Act commits a crime punishable under federal law by fine, imprisonment or both. I affirm that all information I have given in connection with this claim is true.

The SSA denied Detz's initial claim, finding that his disability did not keep him from working in the Tool Room. The SSA also refused his subsequent Request for Reconsideration, which again ...


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