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Totally disabled Social Security recipient can still sue under ADA Applicant must explain inconsistency in SSDI and ADA claims

Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., U.S. Supreme Court, No. 97-1008 (1999)

For the past several years, legal tension has been growing between the two major federal laws dealing with workers’ disabilities the Social Security Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program provides benefits to employees who are “unable to do [their] previous work” and “cannot engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act allows workers to sue their employers for disability discrimination, but only if they can “perform the essential functions” of their jobs with or without a “reasonable accommodation.”

These two very different statutes collide when an employee claims to be “totally disabled” in an SSDI benefits application but then claims to be a qualified disabled worker under the ADA. The U.S. Supreme Court recently investigated this legal collision and determined employees should have the opportunity to proceed under both statutes if they can explain the inconsistencies between their SSDI applications and their ADA claims.

The Cleveland case Cleveland worked for Policy Management Systems Corp. Five months after she started working there, Cleveland suffered a stroke and took a leave of absence.

With her daughter’s help, Cleveland applied for SSDI benefits. In support of her application, Cleveland certified that she was “unable to work because of” her disability.

Three months later, Cleveland’s doctor released her to return to work. He anticipated a nearly complete recovery. Cleveland informed the Social Security Administration of her return to work, and the SSA denied her benefits application.

After returning to work, Cleveland performed poorly. She reportedly asked for several accommodations, such as training and additional time to complete her work, but the company refused her requests. Soon after, the company fired her for poor performance.

Cleveland asked the SSA to reconsider her benefits application, stating she “continue[d] to be disabled.” She explained that she had tried to return to work but that the company fired her because she “could no longer do the job” due to her “condition.” The SSA denied Cleveland’s request, and she asked for a hearing.

While the issue was still pending, Cleveland sued her former employer under the ADA. She claimed the company fired her without reasonably accommodating her disability. One week after she filed the lawsuit, the SSA awarded Cleveland SSDI benefits retroactive to the date of her stroke.

The lower courts’ decision. The trial court granted the company judgment without a trial. It held

Cleveland’s statements to the SSA and her receipt of disability benefits barred her from claiming she was a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA.

Cleveland appealed, but the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The appeals court held the application for or receipt of SSDI benefits creates a presumption that the applicant is not a qualified individual under the ADA. The court stated the employee would be free to challenge this presumption, but it determined Cleveland did not offer enough evidence to overcome the presumption in her case.

The 5th Circuit’s decision added to the already wide discrepancy among federal appeals courts. Some courts faced with the issue had completely blocked ADA lawsuits, some treated statements to the SSA as binding, and yet others allowed employees to present evidence to overcome their statements to the SSA. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Cleveland’s case to clarify the law.

The Supreme Court’s decision Reversing the lower courts, the U.S. Supreme Court held SSDI benefits applications do not conflict with ADA claims “to the point where courts should apply a special negative presumption.”

In reaching its decision, the Court noted the differences in the definition of disability under the SSDI program and the ADA. An employee is a qualified disabled individual under the ADA if he or she can perform the essential job functions “with reasonable accommodation.” However, the SSA determines disability without

regard to reasonable accommodations. It is possible, therefore, for employees to qualify for SSDI benefits even though they could perform their jobs with accommodations.

In addition, the SSA’s administrative regulations allow for a list of disabilities that automatically qualify an employee for benefits. Because the SSDI program is so large, the administration can’t consider all the circumstances that may affect a qualified employee’s ability to perform a particular job. Yet these individual circumstances form the core of an employee’s ADA case — that he or she can perform the job with or without reasonable accommodation.

Because of these differences in definition and procedure, the Supreme Court refused to endorse a presumption against ADA claimants who have applied for SSDI benefits. But because there could be cases of true conflict between the SSDI program and the ADA, the Court held workers must explain any inconsistencies between their benefits applications and their ADA lawsuits.

The Court noted a worker’s sworn assertion in an SSDI application that he or she is “unable to work” appears to contradict an essential element of his or her ADA case. The worker can’t “simply ignore the apparent contradiction.” The employee must provide a sufficient explanation and convince the court that a reasonable juror could find him or her able to perform the essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.

Looking forward The Supreme Court’s decision clears a barrier to ADA lawsuits by workers who have applied for or received SSDI (or other disability) benefits. Although employers will not get judgment without a trial in

every instance, the right defense might still entitle the employer to judgment before the case reaches a Sympathetic jury.

Employers faced with ADA lawsuits should look carefully at workers’ applications for SSDI, workers’ comp, or other disability benefits. Though the mere application for or receipt of benefits will not block an ADA lawsuit, the employee will have to explain to the trial court why earlier assertions of “total disability” or inability to work are no longer true. Merely denying the earlier statements will not be enough to save the employee’s case.

In addition, if the employee has received benefits, he or she will have to overcome the disability determination of the benefits provider — be it the workers’ comp provider, the employee benefits plan, or the Social Security Administration. The amount of benefits granted might also provide an offset against any judgment amount the court awards to an employee in an ADA lawsuit.

In the case at hand, Cleveland must now try to explain to the trial court why her ADA lawsuit is not inconsistent with her SSDI application. She has argued that she claimed to be “totally disabled” in her SSDI application only because the SSA doesn’t take into account reasonable accommodations. She also claims her SSDI application and her ADA lawsuit were accurate at the times when she filed them. The lower court must consider these arguments in deciding whether to let her ADA case proceed.


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