Receipt of Social Security Disability Benefits Does Not Preclude Disability Discrimination Claim

The Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that receipt of social security disability benefits does not necessarily preclude a disability discrimination claim under the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act ("PDA"). Tranker v Figgie Int'l, Inc. Previously, in this case, the court had ruled that because the employee had received social security disability benefits by representing that he was totally disabled, he could not also file a claim under the PDA claiming that he had a disability that was unrelated to his ability to perform his job duties. On appeal the Michigan Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to reconsider that position in the light of several recent federal opinions finding that the receipt of social security benefits does not bar a discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Upon reconsideration, the Appeals Court reversed itself. The court reasoned that the Social Security Act ("SSA") and the PDA "are designed for different purposes, utilize different standards, and requiring a plaintiff to choose between one and the other is unreasonable and illogical." The SSA's definition of "disability" does not require a finding that the person cannot perform any job under any circumstances. Moreover, the SSA does not consider whether a disabled individual could perform a job with reasonable accommodations. Thus, the court reasoned, a person could be "disabled" under the SSA, yet still be able to perform his or her job with reasonable accommodation under the PDA.

The court also ruled that statements contained in an application for disability benefits could be relevant and used against an employee in a disability discrimination claim. The court also noted that damages in a disability discrimination claim could be reduced to prevent double recovery.

Although the court ruled that the employee was not necessarily precluded from pursuing his disability claim, it concluded that this employee could not support his claim. First, plaintiff was not a qualified person with a disability under the PDA because he could not perform the duties of his job. Second, the job that the plaintiff had held before a lengthy leave of absence had been eliminated in a reduction in force during the plaintiff's absence. The court ruled that the employer had no duty under the PDA to accommodate the plaintiff by recreating his former position or by placing him in a different job other than the available maintenance position.