Citing Employee’s Receipt of SSDI Benefits, the Fourth Circuit Rejects the EEOC’s ADA Action Against Medical Center

On April 17, 2012, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit considered the circumstances under which an employee’s ADA claim and receipt of SSDI benefits can co-exist.

In this case, the EEOC asserted that the employer violated the ADA when refused to reinstate a disabled employee because he was not able return to work with the same job classification and hours. During the time the employee sought reinstatement, he had applied for and received Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, stating on his application that he was unable to work.

The district court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, holding that under Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999), the EEOC had not offered a satisfactory explanation for the conflict between the employee’s assertion that he could work “with or without reasonable accommodation” under the ADA and his prior application for and receipt of SSDI benefits. In Cleveland, the U.S. Supreme Court held that although an employee’s application for SSDI benefits does not necessarily mean he or she is presumptively ineligible to make a claim under the ADA, under certain circumstances, a claimant’s application for SSDI benefits may require the dismissal of his ADA claim. When faced with an employee's previous statement he is totally disabled, Cleveland requires the court to require an explanation of the apparent inconsistency with an ADA claim that a reasonable jury could believe.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s application of Cleveland. Significantly, the Fourth Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument that Cleveland does not apply to ADA suits brought by the EEOC. The Court further found that the employee could not have maintained a good faith belief in his ability to return to work without reasonable accommodation, and simultaneously believed that he had no obligation to inform SSA of the change in his condition. It also rejected the EEOC’s argument that an employee’s mere “passive receipt” of disability benefits after becoming able to work does not mandate the kind of scrutiny applied in Cleveland. Rather the Court found that the employee’s continued receipt of benefits was contradictory to his assertion to the employer that he was cleared to return without restriction.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is significant in that it is the first time the Fourth Circuit has considered whether the reasoning in Cleveland applies in an actions by the EEOC. The EEOC is held to the same standard as individuals who attempt to assert an ADA claim while accepting SSDI benefits.

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