The Interaction Between Disability Benefits and Disability Law

Disability DiscriminationSometimes when an employee becomes injured they qualify for protections under state or federal disability law. However, this can present complications when the employee also seeks disability related benefits through state or private insurance. In a recent case the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed whether an employee who claims total disability for the purpose of disability benefits can also be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Smith v. Clark

In Smith v. Clark County School District a school employee, Smith, suffered a back injury. She then applied for disability benefits under Nevada’s Public Employee’s Retirement System (PERS) as well as medical benefits from her insurance.

Smith also applied for Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. On Smith’s FMLA application her doctor stated that Smith was presently incapacitated and was unable to work until she received further notice by a doctor. Smith stated on her application for disability benefits under PERS that she was completely unable to work due to her injury.

However, during this time Smith also negotiated with the school over when she could return to work. Smith claimed that she could work as a literary specialist but not as a teacher. The district offered Smith a position as a teacher with accommodations, but not a literary specialist position. Smith declined this offer.

Smith then sued the school in federal court alleging violations of ADA for failing to provide her with reasonable accommodations for the literary specialist position. The court dismissed the lawsuit because Smith stated that she was permanently disabled, meaning she could not do the work.

The Ninth Circuit’s Decision

When the case reached The Ninth Circuit, they reversed the decision. The mere fact that Smith had made inconsistent statements in the PERS application was not seen as conclusive that she was totally disabled and could not perform essential job functions. In other words, the fact that Smith was totally disabled for the purposes of PERS disability benefits, but at the same time told the district that she could perform the duties of a literary specialist could not be used against her. The reasoning was because the claim for disability benefits under PERS did not take into consideration whether reasonable accommodations could make employment a possibility for Smith.

If you have experienced disability discrimination, you may be entitled to compensation. To learn more contact Michelle Baker at Baker Law Group, LLP. Schedule your free consultation today by calling (858) 452-0093.