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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
statements to the SSA and her receipt of disability benefits barred
her from claiming she was a “qualified individual with a disability” under
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
the right defense might still entitle the employer to judgment before
the case reaches a Sympathetic jury.
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.
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.