- A Honeywell machine operator who testified she was "totally disabled," in accordance with statements on her application for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), failed to show she was a qualified individual with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concluded (Pena v. Honeywell International, Inc., No. 18-1164 (1st Cir. April 26, 2019)).
- While the standards for "disability" are different under Social Security rules and the ADA, said the 1st Circuit, the burden is on the plaintiff to reconcile the two different positions, which the plaintiff in Pena failed to do. Rather than establishing that she was qualified to perform her job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, she repeatedly stated she was totally disabled as of a given date. Accordingly, the court affirmed a district court's summary judgment ruling in favor of Honeywell.
- In a dissent, one 1st Circuit judge said his colleagues misapplied the relevant test and that the plaintiff had offered sufficient evidence that she could perform the essential functions of her job to warrant bringing her ADA claim before a jury.
On the surface, it may seem inconsistent that a worker could be "totally disabled" and unable to work for purposes of receiving disability benefits, yet still able to perform the essential functions of a job as defined by the ADA. But it's important to remember that these are two different laws with two different definitions of "disability."
Importantly, as the U.S. Supreme Court has pointed out, the definition for SSDI "does not take the possibility of 'reasonable accommodation' into account," as the ADA does. For this reason, said the Court, there are "many situations in which an SSDI claim and an ADA claim can comfortably exist side by side."
Experts often recommend that employers explore possible accommodations as warranted, rather than getting too hung up on whether a mental or physical condition qualifies as a "disability" under the ADA.
And when it comes to ADA issues, "consistency, communication, and compliance" are key, Jennifer Lyons, marketing manager at Guardian Life Insurance, said during a recent Disability Management Employer Coalition (DMEC) webinar. Employers should have an accommodation policy in place — before a request is made — and launch the interactive process after an employee requests an accommodation or the need for one becomes apparent, said Cammie McAda, vocational rehabilitation services leader at Guardian, another webinar speaker. Accommodations should also be well-documented and followed up on to ensure they're working out well, McAda added.