By: Meghan E. McCulloch, J.D. – Partner
Social Security disability (known as “SSDI”, for Social Security disability insurance) is a federal disability insurance program that provides a financial benefit to individuals who have worked and paid taxes in to Social Security, but later become unable to work due to their physical and/or mental limitations. The Social Security Administration uses the term “impairments” to describe medical conditions that may result in physical or mental work-related limitations. In order to be eligible for SSDI, the individual’s impairments must render them unable to perform both their past relevant work (defined as any jobs they have performed in the 15 years prior to becoming disabled) and any other work in the national economy for a period of at least twelve (12) months. In most cases, this means that the individual must be totally unable to work in order to receive Social Security disability benefits.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) was signed into federal law in 1990 and provides civil rights protection from discrimination to individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. In the workplace, the ADA provides protection from workplace discrimination by requiring that employers make reasonable workplace accommodations to employment. Employees can file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or bring a lawsuit in federal court seeking damages under the ADA if their employer fails to make a reasonable accommodation after a request from an employee. Under the ADA, an employee or job applicant must be otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions or duties of a job with or without reasonable accommodation. This means that the individual must satisfy the employer’s basic qualification requirements, such as education, experience, and licensing and they must also be able to perform the fundamental job duties, either with or without the assistance of a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to a job or work environment that permits an employee with a disability to be able to perform the essential functions of a job. Some examples of reasonable accommodations may include: using or modifying equipment or assistive devices; modified work schedules; reassignment to another vacant job position; job restructuring; and making the workplace itself accessible and usable by people with disabilities. Employers are required under the ADA to make reasonable accommodations to employees or applicants unless doing so would result in undue hardship to the employer, meaning that the accommodation creates significant difficulty or expense to the employer.
Understanding the criteria for SSDI benefits and ADA claims as detailed in this article, it appears that there is an obvious inherent contradiction in an individual receiving Social Security disability benefits due to an inability to engage in substantial gainful activity while simultaneously alleging an ADA claim based on an ability to work. However, federal courts have held that the receipt of SSDI benefits does not provide a per se basis for dismissal of an ADA claim. In Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a claimant’s “pursuit, and receipt, of SSDI does not automatically estop the recipient from pursuing an ADA claim” and went even further to clarify that the receipt of SSDI benefits does not “erect a strong presumption against the recipient’s success under the ADA.” The Court clarified that “when the Social Security Administration determines whether an individual is disabled for SSDI purposes, it does not take the possibility of ‘reasonable accommodation’ into account, nor need an applicant refer to the possibility of reasonable accommodation when she applies for SSDI,” and in fact there may be “many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side.”
From a practical perspective, to be successful with an ADA claim while receiving SSDI, the employee must reconcile the apparent contradiction by showing to the satisfaction of a jury a significant explanation of an ability to continue employment if given a reasonable accommodation. Of course, if the employer offers the accommodation and the employee takes the job, that will eventually result in the termination of SSDI benefits. However, if an individual’s medical conditions result in work-related limitations that cannot adequately be addressed with a reasonable accommodation, or if the accommodation needed would result in undue hardship to an employer, Social Security disability may be the best, and quite possibly only, option.