Although different laws may use the same language the way words are defined can differ significantly. The difference in the definition of disability between two sets of laws has resulted in a reminder that careful reading can be critical to the success of a legal claim.
In 1999, the United States Supreme Court overturned the dismissal of a case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), which was dismissed by the lower court on the basis that the plaintiff had sought and obtained Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, claiming that she was unable to work due to effects of a stroke. In Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., the Supreme Court reasoned that, even though the plaintiff had claimed, in connection with seeking SSDI benefits, to be unable to work, she was not legally precluded from claiming in her ADA lawsuit that she was able to perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable accommodation.
The Cleveland Case
The plaintiff in Cleveland had suffered a stroke, which damaged her concentration, memory and language skills. After several months of recuperation, she returned to work, but was fired after only a few months. She subsequently brought an action against her employer, claiming that the employer had terminated her employment without accommodating her disability. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer on the ground that, in applying for and receiving SSDI benefits, the plaintiff had conceded that she was totally disabled. The court concluded that she was therefore estopped (that is, legally precluded) from proving an essential element of an ADA claim – namely, that she could perform the essential functions of her job, at least with "reasonable accommodation."
The Supreme Court reversed the lower court's grant of summary judgment. In so doing, the Court focused on the differences between the definition of "disability" under the Social Security Act (SSA) and the ADA definition of "qualified individual," which includes a disabled person who can perform the essential functions of her job "with reasonable accommodation." Significantly, the SSA definition of "disability" does not take into account the possibility of "reasonable accommodation." Moreover, when a person applies for SSDI benefits, he or she is not required to refer to the possibility of reasonable accommodation. As a result of these definitional differences, a plaintiff's assertion in an ADA lawsuit that she can perform the essential functions of her job with reasonable accommodation may well prove to be consistent with an SSDI claim that the plaintiff is unable to work without such an accommodation.
In reinstating the plaintiff's ADA lawsuit in Cleveland, however, the Supreme Court warned that an ADA plaintiff cannot simply ignore the apparent contradiction that arises from an earlier claim, for purposes of seeking SSDI benefits, that she is unable to work. In order to avoid summary judgment against her in an ADA lawsuit, the plaintiff must offer a "sufficient explanation" – i.e., an explanation sufficient to permit a reasonable juror to conclude that, assuming the truth of, or the plaintiff's good faith belief in, the earlier SSDI statement, the plaintiff could nevertheless perform the essential functions of her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.