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Am I “Qualified” under the ADA if I receive SSDI benefits?

The Conflict Between the Americans with Disabilities Act and Social Security Disability Insurance

The Americans with Disability Act (“ADA”) and the Social Security Act both help individuals with disabilities, but in different ways. To obtain relief under the ADA, the employee must establish that he is “qualified” to work despite having a disability. However, to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) benefits, the employee must demonstrate that his disability prohibited him from working. On their face, these two statutory protections seem to conflict with one another.

Is an employee permitted to move forward with an ADA claim after he represented to the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) that he was unable to work due to his disability, or is that employee barred from bringing a claim under the ADA due to the fact he told the SSA he was not qualified to work, thus negating an element of his ADA claim? This blog post will examine the seemingly contradictory positions between the ADA and SSDI.

What is the Apparent Contradiction?

When bringing an ADA disability discrimination claim, an employee must prove the following: (1) that he had a qualifying disability; (2) that he was otherwise qualified for the job, meaning he was able to perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; and (3) the employer unlawfully discriminated against the employee because of his disability. Thus, as noted, the employee must prove he could perform his job, with or without accommodation; meaning he was “qualified.”

Contrast this with the SSDI’s position that an employee must be “unable to do his previous work” and “cannot . . . engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work.” This means the employee must establish that he is “disabled” and cannot perform the functions of his job. Does this apparent contradiction ruin an employee’s chance at recovery pursuant to the ADA? Not necessarily.

What Does the Court Say?

In 1999, the United States Supreme Court stated that an employee’s receipt of SSDI benefits does not automatically prevent an employee from also bringing a claim under the ADA. In fact, the Court noted these two statutory contentions are often consistent with one another. If the employee can sufficiently explain why the SSDI contention of disability is consistent with the ADA position of “qualified,” then the employee can move forward with the ADA claim.

What is a Sufficient Explanation?

In granting SSDI benefits, the SSA does not consider whether an employee can perform his job with “reasonable accommodation.” On the other hand, the ADA does consider whether an employee can perform the essential functions of his job with or without reasonable accommodation. If an employee can establish that he was “qualified” pursuant to the ADA with reasonable accommodation, then that is a “sufficient explanation” to explain the contradiction between the ADA and SSDI. For example, a federal district court in Alabama held that an employee sufficiently explained his opposing representations under the ADA and SSDI by establishing that he could perform the essential functions of his job with a lifting accommodation. Because SSDI did not consider the lifting accommodation in determining the employee “disabled,” the employee was permitted to move forward with his ADA claim.

If you feel your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated, or if you have any other questions regarding your employment rights, please contact the experienced Birmingham employment law attorneys at Wrady Michel & King. You can contact us either online or by calling us at (205) 319-9724. We are here to serve you!