To state case under the ADA, an employee must establish, among other things, that they are an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires. It would be logical to conclude that an employee who applies for permanent disability benefits, states that they cannot perform the duties of their job, submits a doctor’s certificate stating that they are “unable to work due to injury or mental or physical illness” and are declared to have suffered a “total and permanent disability,” would be excluded from asserting that they can perform the essential functions of their position.
A recent 9th Circuit case is a reminder that that Supreme Court precedent does not allow one to automatically reach this logical conclusion. In Smith v. Clark County School District, the issue presented was whether an employee’s claims for permanent disability benefits negated her ability to prove she was a qualified individual under the ADA. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on this issue, but the 9th Circuit reversed because it found that the employee offered a sufficient explanation for her inconsistent statements. The 9th Circuit applied a two step analysis from Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corporation, 526 U.S. 795 (1999), which requires the court to ask, as a legal matter, whether a claim under the ADA “inherently conflict[s]” with the benefits claim to warrant a “negative presumption” against the ADA claim, and, if there is no inherent conflict, whether the claim for benefits “genuinely” conflicts with the ADA claim so as to “negate an essential element of her ADA claim.” Where genuine conflict exists, a plaintiff can overcome summary judgment by offering a sufficient explanation for any inconsistency.
In Smith, the 9th Circuit found that the employee’s claim for disability retirement benefits, FMLA disability leave and private disability benefits did not inherently conflict with her ADA claim because none of the applications accounted for the employee’s ability to work with a reasonable accommodation. The court also found that the employee’s claim that her applications were not an admission of a permanent inability to work, was a sufficient explanation for a reasonable juror to conclude that the employee could perform the essential functions of her job or a reassigned position with or without reasonable accommodation. Based on these findings, the court reversed the district court’s summary judgment ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings. http://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2013/08/21/11-17398.pdf
The only lesson here for employers seems to be that in the 9th Circuit, an employee who says they are “unable to work,” cannot perform their current or a comparable job, and has a doctor who certifies that they can do “no work”, will still be able to argue that they are an individual with a disability who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of their job. Go figure.