July 1999

Workplace Labor Update - Disability Benefits Do Not Bar ADA Claim – July 1999

5 min

The Supreme Court recently resolved a conflict among the lower courts as to whether the receipt of Social Security disability benefits bars an employee from asserting a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Cleveland v. Policy Management Sys. Corp., 119 S.Ct. 1597 (1999). Finding that a Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claim and an ADA claim “can comfortably exist side by side,” the Court held that the receipt of SSDI benefits neither acts as an automatic bar to an ADA claim nor creates a presumption against the potential success of such a claim. However, given that the predicate for the receipt of SSDI benefits typically is a claimed inability to work, the Court ruled that an SSDI recipient bears the burden of explaining how that contention is consistent with the ADA claim.

In Cleveland v. Policy Management Sys. Corp., the plaintiff suffered a disabling stroke, which adversely affected her concentration, memory and language skills. Unable to work for a period of several months after her stroke, the plaintiff applied for SSDI benefits. In her application, the plaintiff specifically represented that she was disabled and unable to work. Before the Social Security Administration (SSA) responded to her application, however, the plaintiff was able to return to work. One month later, the SSA denied her SSDI application, citing her return to work as the basis for its denial. Four days later, the plaintiff's employment was terminated.

Soon after she was discharged, the plaintiff asked the SSA to reconsider its denial of benefits. In her request for reconsideration, the plaintiff emphasized that she was discharged because she “could no longer do the job” in light of her “condition.” The SSA denied the plaintiff's request. The plaintiff then requested a hearing on her application. Again, the plaintiff stressed that she was unable to work because of her disability. The SSA ultimately awarded the plaintiff benefits retroactive to the date of her stroke.

A week before the SSA issued its award, the plaintiff filed suit under the ADA against her former employer. The plaintiff alleged that her employer had unlawfully refused to provide her with requested reasonable accommodations for her disability. The district court ruled in the employer's favor on the grounds that the plaintiff's application for and receipt of SSDI benefits amounted to a concession that she was totally disabled. This admission, the court reasoned, precluded the plaintiff from demonstrating that she could perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable accommodation. On appeal, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that because the plaintiff “consistently represented to the SSA that she was totally disabled, . . . she is judicially estopped from now asserting that . . . she was nevertheless a ‘qualified individual with a disability' for purposes of her ADA claim.”

The Supreme Court took up the case to resolve a conflict among the lower courts about the effect of the application or receipt of SSDI benefits on an ADA claim. The Court recognized that, while at first blush there appears to be a conflict between the underlying premise of an application for SSDI benefits (i.e., that the individual is too disabled to work) and that of an ADA claim (i.e., that the individual is not too disabled to work), this apparent conflict is not sufficient to warrant a negative presumption against the viability of an SSDI recipient's ADA claim because “there are too many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side.” The Court supported its conclusion with the following observations:

    · While the ADA defines a qualified individual as one who can perform the essential functions of the job with “reasonable accommodation,” the possibility of “reasonable accommodation” plays no part in the SSA's determination of whether the individual is disabled for SSDI purposes. Hence, an individual who is disabled for SSDI purposes may nevertheless be able to perform the essential functions of the job with reasonable accommodation;
    · Similarly, the SSDI methodology of determining whether an individual has a disability is overly simplistic and fails to consider individual differences that may impact an individual's ability to perform a particular job;
    · Under certain circumstances, the SSA provides benefits to individuals who are working, not merely those who are unable to work; and
    · Our legal system tolerates inconsistency in legal theories. Accordingly, an individual who has applied for (but not received) SSDI benefits may properly advance the alternative legal theory that s/he is a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA.
Although the Court rejected the notion of an inherent conflict between the receipt of SSDI benefits and a claim under the ADA, it recognized that there are instances where an SSDI claim can truly conflict with an ADA claim. As the Court explained, “a plaintiff's sworn assertion in an application for disability benefits that she is, for example, ‘unable to work' will appear to negate an essential element of her ADA case – at least if she does not offer a sufficient explanation.”

Accordingly, the court held that an ADA plaintiff bears the burden of explaining any apparent inconsistency between the ADA claim and an earlier SSDI claim. This explanation must be sufficient to establish that, notwithstanding the representations made in connection with an SSDI claim, the plaintiff nevertheless could perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.