The United States Supreme Court, in the first of several decisions this term affecting people with HIV and AIDS, ruled unanimously Monday that workers with disabilities do not automatically lose employment discrimination protections if they apply for Social Security disability benefits.
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund said the decision is great news for people with HIV or other disabilities who may need protection through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as well as support from the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
Lambda, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 48 major medical, public health, disability and civil rights organizations, praised the 9-0 ruling in Cleveland v. Policy Management Systems for respecting the needs of people with disabilities.
“This ruling spares people with disabilities from having to make the impossible choice between food and work,” said AIDS Project Director Catherine A. Hanssens, author of Lambda’s amicus brief.
The decision vacates and remands an August, 1997, ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that dismissed Texas resident Carolyn C. Cleveland’s wrongful termination lawsuit under the ADA solely because she had applied for Social Security benefits after she had been fired.
The Court said that the Fifth Circuit erred when it interpreted the request for disability benefits as an admission by Cleveland that she was unable to work because of her disability and hence beyond the scope of the ADA. The justices rejected the application in ADA cases of judicial estoppel, the legal doctrine that prevents parties to a lawsuit from making contradictory claims in separate court proceedings.
In a 12-page decision that drew significantly on Lambda’s brief, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, “The Social Security Act and the ADA both help individuals with disabilities, but in different ways.” He continued, “In our view…the two claims do not inherently conflict to the point where courts should apply a special negative presumption…. That is because there are too many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side.”
Justice Breyer noted that in all other types of cases, plaintiffs are given an opportunity to explain statements that may appear in conflict, but are not.
“We do not see why the law in respect to the assertion of SSDI and ADA claims should differ,” he said.
Lambda’s brief highlighted the complementary goals of the ADA and Social Security benefits which encourage the employment of people with disabilities. The ADA protects them while on the job, requiring reasonable accommodations to help them keep working. Social Security provides some income for those who are unable to work because of their disabling conditions.
Cleveland suffered a stroke in 1994 that left her with residual medical problems and a speech impediment. Managers at her Dallas employer, Policy Management Systems, mocked her disability, refused to consider her request for reasonable workplace accommodations as required by the ADA, then fired her. The company insisted that she forfeited her right to ADA protections when she filed for Social Security disability benefits. Monday’s ruling grants Cleveland the opportunity to bring her dismissed claims to court.
“People with disabilities, including those with HIV, increasingly rely on both the ADA and Social Security. This decision ensures that the courthouse door will not be closed to them when they suffer discrimination,” said Legal Director Beatrice Dohrn.
During a term in which the federal disabilities rights law has faced the greatest scrutiny yet from the High Court, rulings are expected in three other ADA cases in which Lambda played active roles. Hanssens also co-authored an amicus brief in Kirkingburg v. Albertsons, a case involving a Portland, Oregon truck driver with monocular vision.
Additionally, Lambda participated in amicus briefs in Sutton v. United Airlines, a case involving twin Colorado sisters denied jobs because of their extremely poor vision, and Murphy v. United Parcel Service, brought by a delivery driver fired for having high blood pressure.
All three cases test whether the ADA also protects people whose disabilities can be controlled, corrected, or otherwise mitigated. Noting that the ADA provides some of the strongest workplace protections for people with HIV, Lambda participated in all three cases to ensure that those protections are not eroded.
Lambda is the nation’s oldest and largest legal organization for lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS.
Contact: Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager); Catherine A. Hanssens 212-809-8585 x 215