U.S. Supreme Court Rules That Receipt Of Social Security Disability Benefits Does Not Preclude Disability Discrimination Claim

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled, in Cleveland v Policy Management Systems Corp, that pursuit and receipt of social security disability insurance ("SSDI") benefits does not automatically preclude the recipient from pursuing a claim of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). The court further decided that receipt of such benefits also does not erect a strong presumption against a recipient's success under the ADA. The court rejected those lower court opinions that had decided that a claim of total disability for SSDI benefits precluded a subsequent ADA claim that the person could perform his or her work, with or without a reasonable accommodation.

In making its decision, the court reasoned that despite the apparent conflict between the SSDI program and the ADA:

"the two claims do not inherently conflict to the point where courts should apply a special negative presumption" like some courts had done in the past. According to the court, there existed many situations "in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side."

Examples of Non-Contradictory Applications

No list of non-contradictory claims has been provided, but a logical examination of the basis for claims supports the court's determination. For example, the Social Security Administration does not consider the possibility of reasonable accommodation in determining SSDI disability, whereas the ADA requires such accommodation. Thus, a person's ADA claim that he or she could perform the job with accommodation would be consistent with an SSDI claim that the person could not perform his or her job without an accommodation. Also, a person's condition could change over time, so that a claim of disability at the time of application for SSDI benefits might not be determinative of the person's condition at the time of the relevant employment decision.

Conflicting Claims

The court recognized, however, that in some cases, an earlier SSDI claim may conflict with an ADA claim. The court, therefore, also decided that "an ADA plaintiff cannot simply ignore her SSDI contention that she was too disabled to work." The court explained what steps a plaintiff must take to survive summary judgment, the process by which a defendant seeks to have a case dismissed before a trial. Specifically, the court determined that plaintiffs must explain why their SSDI benefits claim that they are too disabled to work is consistent with their ADA claim that they could have performed the essential functions of their previous job, with or without reasonable accommodation.

In Michigan Courts

The Michigan Court of Appeals had already reached a similar conclusion, in Tranker v Figgie Int'l (1998), for purposes of the Michigan Persons with Disabilities Act ("PDA"). (See Fall 1998 Recent Developments in Employment Law). Thus, under both the ADA and the PDA, employers cannot simply rely on an employee's claim for SSDI benefits when deciding their duty and ability to accommodate the employee's disability. Rather, although employers should consider SSDI claims and should ask their employee to explain any contradictions, they must perform their own analysis about whether an employee is disabled and able to perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation.