Can I still pursue my disability discrimination claim if I receive disability benefits?

Often, our clients who are pursuing disability discrimination claims under the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) or the Kentucky Civil Rights Act (“KCRA”), find themselves in the position of being forced to apply for disability insurance benefits after being wrongfully terminated. This raises an important question: Can I pursue my disability discrimination lawsuit even if I applied for and was granted disability insurance benefits?

Qualified Individual with a Disability v. Total Permanent Disability

One of the fundamental elements that a plaintiff must establish in a disability discrimination claim is that she is a “qualified individual with a disability.” A qualified individual with a disability is a person who meets legitimate skill, experience, education, or other requirements of a job that she holds or seeks, and who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodation.[1]42 U.S.C. § 12111(8); See also, The ADA: Questions and Answers, … Continue reading The American’s with Disabilities Act anticipates, and requires, that individuals who are considered disabled under the law still be able to perform essential functions of the job she holds or seeks to hold, with or without an accommodation. The ADA is an explicit recognition that millions of American workers with disabilities are important members of the workforce and able to work productively with reasonable accommodations.

This can be contrasted with the United States Social Security Administration’s disability standard: “To meet our definition of disability, you must not be able to engage in any substantial gainful activity (SGA) because of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment(s) that is either: Expected to result in death. Has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months.”[2]Social Security – The Red Book, https://www.ssa.gov/redbook/eng/definedisability.htm#:~:text=To%20meet%20our%20definition%20of,of%20at%20least%2012%20months.

When a plaintiff in a disability discrimination lawsuit applies for and receives social security disability insurance or another type of disability insurance, based on an inability to work as a result of a disability, employers often argue that the plaintiff should be estopped from claiming that she was a “qualified individual with a  disability” under the ADA because she successfully applied for disability insurance benefits.   However, this issue has been analyzed by numerous courts.[3]See, e.g., Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems Corp., 526 U.S. 795 (1999). In particular, courts have recognized that “statements in support of an SSDI application do not take into account of the concept of reasonable accommodation under the ADA and, therefore, do not necessarily estop a claim under the ADA that one is capable of performing the essential functions of one’s position with reasonable accommodation.”[4]Turner v. Hershey Chocolate USA, 440 F.3d 604, 609 (3rd Cir. 2006). 

These courts, and others like them, highlight the important distinction between the protections of anti-discrimination laws like the ADA and the standards used by the Social Security Administration and other disability insurance benefit providers. That primary difference is that under the ADA, and similar state laws, employers are expected to work with the employee to find reasonable accommodations to allow an employee to continue working, while disability insurance standards do not take into consideration the possibility that with an accommodation an otherwise totally disabled individual may be about to work.

The Effect of a Disability Insurance Award on Your Ability to

Collect Lost Wages in a Disability Discrimination Suit

Back pay in the form of lost wages is a major component of damages in most discrimination claims. Back pay is designed to compensate a plaintiff for the wages she lost because of her employer’s illegal and discriminatory actions. For example, if an employer refuses to hire you because of a disability, then part of your damages would be the wages you lost as a result of not getting the job. Courts have stated that back pay is equal to the difference between the salary a plaintiff would have received had they not been discriminated against and the money actually earned during the appropriate backpay period.

However, every plaintiff that files a lawsuit for illegal discrimination seeking lost wages, has a duty to mitigate those lost wages. This means that a plaintiff must make all reasonable efforts to secure other employment following their discriminatory termination. Both federal and state courts state that plaintiffs are cannot maximize their back pay award by purposefully remaining unemployed — to do so is considered a failure to mitigate damages. In order to effectively attempt to mitigate their damages, a plaintiff must, at a minimum, make reasonable efforts to find a new job substantially similar to the one they were discriminatorily fired from.  

When an individual files for disability insurance benefits, generally that individual has to certify that she is not able to engage in any gainful employment. Because a plaintiff receiving disability insurance benefits cannot work, the plaintiff cannot mitigate their lost wages. This means that a grant of disability insurance benefits has the practical effect of cutting off a plaintiff’s wage damages during the entire period the plaintiff is unable to work and receiving disability insurance benefits.

If you have questions about the interplay between disability discrimination laws and disability insurance benefits or if you think you’ve been discriminated against because of a disability, contact one of the employment law attorneys at Abney Law today for a free consultation.

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