Avoiding A Collision At The Intersection Of SSDI Benefits And The ADA

As a Des Moines employment lawyer, I often work with disabled individuals on disability discrimination claims. Oftentimes, they're unemployed because of their disability. The question thus naturally arises -- Should I apply for Social Security disability while my lawsuit's pending? That's a difficult question. Seeking Social Security disability benefits while suing under the Americans with Disabilities Act for disability discrimination is not easy. In fact, courts often conclude that the receipt of Social Security disability benefits prohibits that person from also suing under the ADA.

There’s a legal intersection between Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and the Americans With Disabilities Act. They both help individuals with disabilities, but in different ways. SSDI provides monetary benefits to every insured individual who “is under a disability.” The ADA seeks to eliminate unwarranted discrimination against disabled individuals in order both to guarantee those individuals equal opportunity and to provide the United States with the benefit of their consequently increased productivity. But can the two legal claims collide at that intersection, thus eliminating your right to simultaneously pursue both? 

That’s certainly possible because the proof necessary to succeed on an SSDI claim is often contradictory to that needed for an ADA claim. To recover SSDI benefits, a claimant needs to be unable to work for a period of time. To qualify for benefits, SSDI applicants must establish that their impairment prevents them from engaging in substantial gainful work for at least a period of twelve months. Conversely, the ADA presumes that the employee is ready, willing, and able to work, perhaps with a disability accommodation. Someone who’s totally unable to work, as SSDI applicants often are, will generally have a very difficult time succeeding on their ADA claim. Given that contradiction, courts can, but don’t have to, consider the receipt of SSDI benefits to act as a bar to an ADA claim.

Through 1999, several federal courts of appeals had determined that SSDI applicants or beneficiaries could not also pursue an ADA lawsuit against an employer. Those courts reasoned that an application for disability insurance is tantamount to an admission that the person cannot work. The inability to work, even after an employer provides a reasonable disability accommodation, usually eliminates the employee’s right to sue under the ADA.

That law changed in 1999, when the United States Supreme Court decided Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corporation and overruled the lower federal appellate courts on this point. The Cleveland court ruled that SSDI benefits aren’t necessarily indicative of the complete inability to work that would foreclose an ADA claim. The court reasoned that there could be circumstances under which SSDI benefits and an ADA claim could legally co-exist. Perhaps an employer denied a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee. That employee could have remained employed with reasonable workplace accommodations, if the employer had provided them. Consequently, that hypothetical employee might have a legitimate ADA claim (because the employee could’ve remained working with a reasonable accommodation), while remaining eligible for SSDI benefits because continued employment is impossible under the employee’s current workplace conditions (no reasonable disability accommodation).

So if you’re suing under the ADA, you can still apply for SSDI, but you will have to explain that possible contradiction in court. Defense attorneys will pore over your SSDI materials to find anything you signed that indicates you’re unable to work and thus not eligible for protection under the ADA. Federal courts continue to dismiss ADA lawsuits if they conclude that the circumstances of an ADA plaintiff’s SSDI claim indicate a complete inability to work, even with a reasonable accommodation. Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines disability discrimination lawyer .

Harley Erbe