How can a plaintiff maintain that his employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act that would allow him to return to work, while at the same time collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits? In its 1999 Cleveland decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the two positions may be compatible, but that the plaintiff bears the burden of demonstrating that there is not a conflict between the two legal assertions.
In an unpublished opinion released last month, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes North Carolina and South Carolina) applied Cleveland's reasoning to an ADA claim brought by the EEOC. In EEOC v. Greater Baltimore Med. Ctr., Inc., the employee was receiving SSDI benefits after experiencing a stroke and other serious medical problems. At the same time, he received doctors' releases to allow him to return to work, and applied for multiple positions at the hospital. When these requests were denied, the EEOC filed suit on the employee's behalf, claiming discrimination and failure to accommodate under the ADA.
In a 2-1 decision, the Fourth Circuit affirmed summary judgment for the employer. The court rejected the EEOC's contention that Cleveland's burden of proof does not apply to cases brought by the EEOC instead of those filed by the aggrieved employees themselves. While the EEOC has a separate legal basis and purpose for filing suit against employers, it must resolve the fundamental conflict between the employee's job applications and failure to inform Social Security of his change in status. This question is relevant to the issue of ADA compliance regardless of who brings the claim.
In addition, the Fourth Circuit rejected the EEOC's contention that a passive failure to inform Social Security of a change in condition should be viewed differently than an affirmative misstatement made to the agency at the time the benefits application was filed. Cleveland drew no such distinction, and it is not relevant to the question of how the employee can draw SSDI benefits at the same time he claimed that he was qualified to work for the defendant.